There’s a scene in the final five minutes of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them during which one character somehow becomes a different character. He’s obviously undergone a change, and despite having watched the film for two hours at that point, I had no idea what happened.
One moment a guy was there (played by Colin Farrell), and the next, it was a different guy. Not just a different actor (it’s a surprise, and although he looked familiar, I didn’t recognize him until I read the credits afterward, at which point I said, “Oh yeah, I guess that was him”), but a different character. They called him by a different name.
That’s the only scene in the film during which I thought, “Maybe I’d understand this better if I knew more about the Harry Potter books and movies.” J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay in which Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist (magic zoologist) who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—which Harry Potter would read seventy years later during his first year of wizardry school at Hogwarts—brings fantastic beasts to New York City, only to see them escape and wreak havoc.
But Rowling wisely didn’t incorporate much of the Harry Potter stories into the screenplay. The fact that the events take place seventy years before Harry starts school helps with that, but we also understand that rather than being based on Harry Potter, this is a separate story that just happens to take place in the same world.
And what a world it is!
I’m not a special effects guy. They don’t impress me, and if someone tells me that I have to see a film because of the special effects, I usually avoid it. I want story and I want characters, and no matter how many big explosions, cool fights, and sci-fi mumbo jumbo is included, it won’t make up for a lack of story and characters.
But this film tells a layered, gripping story involving unique, riveting characters that just happen to live in a magical world and encounter fantastic beasts. So when Newt encounters a no-maj (a human with no magic, or a muggle if you’re a Potter purist) who’s on to his secrets, we don’t think twice when he waves his wand and instantly transports the no-maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) the length of the bank, then to the basement, then outside to the sidewalk.
And watching Newt and Kowalski step into Newt’s suitcase as it lie on the floor, which transports them into an underworld where the fantastic beasts live, didn’t seem stupid, or like a silly special effect, but rather made me wish that I could go with them.
When the action-packed climax of the film occurs, blocks of New York City are destroyed by a force we mere humans don’t understand, but the crashing walls, flipping cars, and bodies flying through the air didn’t seem like hokey, unbelievable special effects, but rather the consequences of the struggle.
The basic story is simple. Newt comes to New York. He brings fantastic beasts with him. When one escapes, he’s turned in by a wizard world investigator, Tina (Katherine Waterston), but she’s ignored by the higher-ups, so she and Newt, along with Kowalski the no-maj, and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) try to locate and recapture the missing fantastic beasts.
That story alone would have been enough to propel the film, but there’s an additional storyline in which Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) runs an orphanage and is beginning her own witch-hunt. She and her followers hang signs around the city that read: “No witchcraft in America!” and “We need a second Salem.” One of Mary Lou’s children is a sensitive boy named Credence (Ezra Miller), who’s on the lookout for witches, but may have secrets of his own.
From top to bottom this film helps us forget that we’re watching a wizardry world. Everything is so genuine and truthful that there’s no suspension of disbelief required. The sets and cinematography make us feel like we’re in 1920s New York. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt constantly on that line of being so weird that he doesn’t seem human, but so normal that he doesn’t seem like a wizard. Katherine Waterston’s Tina seems as impressed and surprised by the beasts as we are. And Dan Fogler’s Kowalski almost steals the show from the beasts and Redmayne. He acts using his entire body, and no movement seems wasted.
The beasts are fantastic, and so is the film.
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