Thursday, November 17, 2016

Before Potter: "Fantastic Beasts" casts a whimsical, transportive spell


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
132 min., rated PG-13.

After the “Harry Potter” films, adapted from J.K. Rowling’s seven books, came to an end with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” in 2011, Warner Bros. was quick to announce a project with the adaptation of Rowling’s 2001 book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” A spin-off taking place in the same wizard universe—“Potterverse,” right?—but set earlier in America during 1926, the film is pretty fantastic, indeed, even as the first installment and inevitable placeholder of a planned five-film franchise. Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley have not even been enrolled at Hogwarts, let alone been born, just yet, but despite an initially uneven handling of characters and story, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a rapturous and whimsical fantasy-adventure full of magic and charm to spare.

In Europe, Gellert Grindelwald—one of the most dangerous wizards second to Lord Voldemort—is wreaking havoc. As for British Ministry of Magic magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), he is traveling the globe in search of all kinds of magical creatures. He sets foot in New York City, carrying a suitcase full of them that are dying to get out. At the local bank, he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a war vet and factory worker hoping to get a loan to open his bakery, and they inadvertently switch suitcases. Following Newt is Tina “Porpentina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America in the office. When Jacob opens the case and unleashes the creatures, he must set off on a wild goose chase with Newt, Tina, and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Meanwhile, head Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is trying to track down the culprit who’s turned his or her dark magic on the city and turns to Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the adopted son of abusive anti-witch group leader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

A warm sense of comfort and excitement should fall over audiences as the music score announces familiarity to “Harry Potter,” while being accompanied by the Warner Bros. Pictures logo coming toward the screen. Considering the basis for the film claimed to be a textbook authored by one Newt Scamander, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has been wondrously conceived and executed as written for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates. As packed as Newt’s suitcase, the film doesn’t always have quite the same balance as the “Harry Potter” films, which, granted, grew better in quality over ten years. There is a wide array of characters to keep track of, most of them coming to life, but some do leave more development to be desired and others need not exist for this chapter (Jon Voight's Henry Shaw, Sr. and his two sons have no real bearing on anything). Having steered the final four of the “Harry Potter” movies, director Yates runs into no issues carrying over the same kind of wonder and an alternately lighthearted and foreboding tone, while moving the several plot strands along with lively pacing. The viewer easily picks up on new glossary terms, similar to those from J.K. Rowling’s “other” story (i.e. “No-Majs” are the American version of “Muggles,” or non-wizard folk), and there are numerous beasts of all shapes, sizes, and colors to meet (one cute platypus-looking critter called a “niffler” likes seeking any shiny and expensive).

Taking a rest from playing real-life figures in prestige pictures, Eddie Redmayne is nonetheless secure in the skin of a character as wide-eyed, eccentric and introverted as Newt Scamander. As take-charge Tina Goldstein, Katherine Waterston is no-nonsense but charming; she’s a less conventional choice but the right one. There is a vague attempt to wedge in a romance between Newt and Tina, but it doesn’t quite get there, and that’s a relief. Though he has worked since, Dan Fogler has come such a long way since his boisterous—nay, obnoxious—turn in 2007’s ping-pong comedy “Balls of Fury” that one can’t believe it is the same person. Here, as “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski who can’t stop looking at everything in disbelief, Fogler isn’t just very funny with wonderful timing for Charlie Chaplin-era comedy but sweet, endearing and lovable. The new discovery in the cast is Alison Sudol (Amazon’s “Transparent”), who’s a fetching delight with a sensual giggle like Marilyn Monroe as Queenie, Tina’s bubbly psychic sister and roommate who takes up a flirtatious liking to Jacob. When they are given the chance, Fogler and Sudol have the most spark and steal their scenes right from under Redmayne and Waterston, who are ostensibly the leads. In no-less-pivotal roles, Colin Farrell is suavely mysterious as the possibly distrustful Percival Graves, and Ezra Miller is darkly intriguing as the troubled Credence Barebone.

If any quibbles befall the overall success of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the climactic scenes go on a hair too long with too much exposure of the swirling darkness that is taking over New York, not much different from the city destruction in any Marvel movie. Otherwise, the film puts its $225 million budget to complete use, but none of that would matter were the casting not this peerless and the storytelling not this engagingly interwoven. From there, the visual effects are as top-notch as one has come to expect in the fantasy genre, and the set-pieces are robust and thrillingly immersive; the interior of Newt’s suitcase is a particular marvel to behold. James Newton Howard’s music score is also a rousing one, combining not only strains of John Williams but occasionally feels Danny Elfmanesque. Whether one is already well-versed in everything Rowling has created or not, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” casts a very enchanting spell and transports one to a world they aren’t ready to leave when it’s over.

Grade: B +

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