By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
* Spoiler Alert
A tiny bit of that familiar Harry Potter magic is all that’s needed to spin Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into its own yarn. While most of the music is original, the signature tune from the Potter films reminds viewers about where this new series fits in a greater whole. The movie has all the intrigue from, say The Untouchables (1987), but when that familiar formula from the books J.K. Rowling wrote about the titular character, the young man in this new film has hints of Nicholas Rowe (ala Young Sherlock Holmes) feeling lost, embroiled to his own world, until reality hits him hard.
The wizarding world J.K. Rowling invented is expanded upon. With this new film, the very precocious Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is getting the spotlight even though a bigger issue (which will span several movies) is afoot elsewhere. He arrives in America by boat (through New York) and meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). An accidental switch of suitcases belonging to the two men opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems.
For the wizarding community at large, they are concerned and want to know the whereabouts of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a wizard that (for his time) is an earlier evil. He came to prominence before Voldemort was ever born. Set in 1926, this look into the Jazz Age around New York has plenty of visual treats to enjoy. Director David Yates’ style is never that hard to figure out. He amazes viewers with moments of visual wonders, and is responsible for imagining IMAX screenings to have some effects “leap” off frame. This decision is a welcome one, and more 3D (even post-converted films) should be made that way. As gimmicky as this technique is, at least it is done right to have some digital effects float in front of audiences.
The era is also nicely recreated and filmed in 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio by Philippe Rousselot. Though most of the film was shot in the UK, than in period-looking areas of New York, the blend works. When considering the exterior shoots of Moulin Rouge were digitally enhanced, the only shame I find with modern movies of today is in the fact that more money is being spent to digitally recreate the past than to find locations to match the style desired.
The threat Grindelwald represents is minuscule in comparison to the adventures Scamander have. While he’s scouring the city in search for his “pets,” another tale unwinds which has connections to the Salem Witch Trials. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads a cult who believes magic users should be hunted down and put to death. She runs an orphanage where her daughter, Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), looks fully brainwashed to her beliefs and her eldest son, Credence (effectively played with a creepy candour by Ezra Miller), is mostly trying to belong.
Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is an Auror who works at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and there are times he’s like Eliot Ness. He’s out on a mission to find an Obscurial, a dark force that gets created when children suppress their magical ability. Unless properly contained or manipulated, those possessed by it do not live long. When people thought Harry Potter lived in dark times because of Voldemort, this era feels even far more ominous when the wizarding community are living in plain sight, but are forced to hide their abilities. Some do not want to deny the fact they are “exceptional” and that’s this series’ general theme.
I’m sure more study into this segregation will be explored in later films, as four more are being planned. Scamander will be involved and Grindelwald is established as the big villain. I suspect the movies will have Newt accidentally stumbling into the latter’s schemes, and I will be following this new saga with heart-shaped eyes since the Goldsteins, at least Tina, will be involved. To follow this adventure as it will no doubt enter into World War II suggests the future may have the Nazi‘s involved. Just when historians thought the persecution of the Jews as bad, to see magi treated with equal fear for what they represent can make for some interesting juxtapositions. Rowling is not known for imbedding deeper treatises in her Potter work, but if this new saga is to succeed, it will have to appeal to the masses in a similar way in how Tolkien made his Lord of the Rings work a subject worthy of continued study.
4 Wands out of 5