133 min. | PG-13
Throughout the history of storytelling, there has always been something irresistible about a secret world right under our nose. A hidden universe suddenly exposed to us, full of wonder and purpose just inside that wardrobe, activated by that red pill, or found on that first trip to Kings Cross Platform 9¾. These stories hit that primal urge of reality being something more transcendent than what we thought, and they go a long way in edifying us about what we really yearn for.
Arguably the reigning god in that territory for the last 20 years, J.K. Rowling has created an impressive universe of wizards, monsters, and the Boy Who Lived. And while Harry Potter’s story may be over (yeah, right), Rowling has scripted Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based on a fake textbook she penned for charity back in 2001, detailing the many curious and dangerous creatures in the Potter universe.
That book was “written” by Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who as we open in New York City 1926, has just arrived from overseas to ostensibly free one beast while acquiring another. He carries a tattered suitcase—one with a secret, as it’s a world in and of itself, a preserve for the creatures he’s collected. Think Hermione’s handbag, but with a view.
Scamander inadvertently lets loose a few of the beasts in a well-choreographed opening sequence, finds a friend in budding baker and muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and catches the eye of mid-level auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).
Porpentina arrests Scamander for illegally bringing in these beasts, and he goes up against security head Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). But as these things go, bigger threats reveal themselves, especially in the form of a chaotic and malevolent parasitical entity wreaking havoc in the city. Oh, and the famous Dark Arts wizard (and Dumbledore nemesis) Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose.
If you’re still with me, then good. Because while Fantastic Beasts suffers from symptoms that are basically par for the course in recent high-profile Hollywood spectacles—too many set-pieces, plotlines stitched together, and one-note supporting roles (Jon Voight playing a newspaper mogul)—it’s also really fun.
The 1920s New York backdrop is a nice change of pace from castles and countrysides (a magical speakeasy comes to mind). Redmayne charms with his take on the absentminded professor schtick. And Rowling’s recurring themes (traumatizing childhoods, complacent governments, fascism) are used to good effect.
For those looking for a charming blockbuster, here is where to find it.