Eddie Redmayne brings Harry Potter legacy stateside
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell & Dan Fogler
Directed by David Yates
In theaters Nov. 18, 2016
The “boy wizard” Harry Potter exited the movies in 2011 after a $10 billion box-office run of eight hugely popular films. But he never really left.
But author J.K. Rowling kept the character alive and well in a London stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and in new tales on her Potterworld website. And the legacy certainly thrives in Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them, a spin-off “prequel” that takes place 70 years before the events depicted in the first Harry Potter movie.
Beasts—written and co-produced by Rowling and directed by David Yates, who also directed the final four Harry Potter flicks—is the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young Hogwarts-trained “magiczoologist” who comes to New York City in 1926 on a mission to “rescue, nurture and protect” the world’s magical creatures.
Newt is also documenting his travels, like a wizard-ing Charles Darwin, for a book that will be called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—which will also, decades later, become one of Harry Potter’s textbooks.
But the Big Apple isn’t a very hospitable place, at that particular time, particularly for wizards. As Nazi fascism spreads abroad, the dark specter of an evil wizard-warlord, Gellert Grindelwald, looms even larger, and the public views anyone with any twinkle of magical abilities with fear and suspicion. A sect of witch-hunting fanatics, the Second Salemers, rallies to ferret out wizards in New York City, putting America’s own benevolent Magical Congress on the defensive.
So when some Newt’s “beasts” get loose from his carry-on, it creates quite a stir—and sets off something like a 1920s version of the game Pokèmon Go as Newt scurries and scrambles trying to find them all.
In a movie called Fantastic Beasts, you’d expect some fantastic beasts, and you can indeed find them here. There are teeny green Bowtruckles, whimsical, shy, plant-like sprouts that can come in quite handy, say, if you’ve got a lock to pick. The regal Thunderbird, an enormous avian creature (the Hippogriff in later Potter lore), can sense danger and create storms. The primate-like Demiguise has shiny silver fur, when he’s not invisible. An Occomy, a plumed, dragon-like bird, hatches from pure silver eggs worth a fortune and can grow—or shrink—to any size, filling up a department store or diving into a teacup. The Erumpent, a love-stuck, rhino-like behemoth, has a gigantic glowing horn.
But everyone’s favorite will be the Niffler, a rascally, kleptomanic cross between a mole and a platypus that can’t keep his tiny paws off coins, watches or anything worth snatching.
Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the director of security for the Magical Congress, comes down hard on Newt for smuggling creatures into the states—but, as his last name suggests, Graves may also have other, hidden, more sinister motives. Katherine Waterson is Tina, a witch who becomes Newt’s ally. Alison Sudol, from TV’s Transparent, plays Tina’s free-spirited sister and roommate, Queenie. Ezra Miller is Credence Barebone, a troubled young man with a painful past. Tony Award-winning Broadway actor Dan Fogler steals his scenes (and the hearts of the audience) as Jacob Kowalski, a loveable-lug “No-Mag” (non-magical) factory worker, World War I veteran and aspiring baker exposed to the world of magic through his new friendship with Newt.
Fantastic Beasts will delight Harry Potter fans who’ve been pining for more big-screen magic for six years. It has moments of humor, whimsy and fun, and it creates a new world of fanciful characters and detail. But its overall tone is dark, casting its fantasy adventure against a very serious backdrop of dread, paranoia and oppression that recalls not only history’s long shadows but also many of today’s pitched, polarized emotions. And it seems like a Hollywood fizzle when a movie so rich in wizardly wonders and escapist marvel builds to a standard, blockbuster-y blowout, with 10 minutes of crashing, booming CGI destruction and noise. Yes, a major city gets demolished once again, and yet no one seems to get seriously injured or killed—just like in almost every modern superhero smash-fest.
Early in the film, Tina watches Newt catch one of his creatures, place it back in his grip and quickly snap it shut. “What else have you got in there?” she asks him.
A lot! And in more ways than one—there are four more Beasts movies planned. Expect to see a lot more of Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob.
Redmayne, an Oscar-winning actor, is fine in his role—gangly, earnest, a bit bumbling, striking the right tones as a scientist devoted to his work and his precious supernatural subjects. But Newt’s valise: Man, that’s one crazy road case, and it deserves its own star billing. It holds his magical menagerie, all his clothes and toiletries, and it serves as the portable portal to his fabulous, other-dimensional workshop, lab and zoo. And somehow it’s a zip to get through customs.
So if you’re getting me anything for Christmas, please look into one of those nutty suitcases. That would be a totally fantastic present.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine