Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
by Hope Madden
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) protects that which is unusual and therefore feared and persecuted. Funny that it took so long for a series about witchcraft to finally embrace this theme, but JK Rowling’s latest, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, digs in.
Part of the Harry Potter universe, though set decades earlier and continents apart, Beasts sees Newt land in NYC circa 1929 with a suitcase full of incorrigible creatures. He’s writing a book (it will eventually become a standard text at Hogwarts), but for now he has a spectacular winged creature to return.
If only the rest of the menagerie would stay put – and the American council of witches is none too pleased to find that his critters have escaped to run amuck in Manhattan.
The witches don’t like Newt’s beasties, so he hides them. The New Salem sect does not like witches, so they hide. The New York elite doesn’t like the freaks of New Salem. All this revulsion of the unknown leads to very bad things – things that could be avoided if we could see beyond our own fears.
Not that Rowling, adapting her own novel for the screen, or Beasts director David Yates (who helmed the final 4 Potter films), beats you about the head with the message. You’ll be plenty distracted by the wings, coils, teeth, horns and antics of Newt’s whimsical pals, and Yates’s giddy FX.
The film looks great – appropriately grim and glorious, in turns – and strong casting helps buoy a somewhat thin plot.
Redmayne (who may need to play a normal guy at some point) charms as the impish lead. As the quietly malevolent leader of the witch hunters, Samantha Morton delivers the most commanding performance among supporting players with characters as peculiar as Newt’s creatures.
Mercifully free of the adolescent angst that plagued the Potter series, Beasts contents itself with lovable losers in search of wild beasties and basic harmony between magic and nomag (the US term for muggles).
Though uneven at times – as if introducing too much and too little simultaneously – the first in a series of 5 films offers enough magic to make it worthwhile.