It’s been a lonely life for those wild about Harry. After the final Harry Potter chapter hit the screen five years ago, the audience has missed his wizardry while studios missed their revenue stream. Fortunately, fifteen years ago, author J.K. Rowling had penned a 128-page story for charity. Neither a prequel nor sequel, it is part of the Potter universe.
Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, rejected for the role of Tom Riddle in an earlier Potter flick, was the first and only choice for the lead role of Newt Scamander. As the story goes, in 1926, Newt stopped over in New York, after a global excursion, searching for and documenting an extraordinary array of mysterious and supernatural creatures.
For many, this is a perfect re-introduction to that wizardry world. Within the Potter universe, Newt’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was supposedly published in 1927, became a massive bestseller and approved textbook at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter series (1990’s), the book was in its 52nd edition.
On the street, Newt is asked if he is a seeker of Truth. He responds, “I’m actually more of a chaser.” He carries a wide variety of critters in his somewhat unusual suitcase. The case can do just about everything except stay locked. Inevitably, a duck-billed Niffler escapes. While chasing the rascal down, Newt’s bag gets swapped with Jacob (Dan Fogler), a would-be baker and No-Maj (American term for Muggle, short for “no-magic”).
In the wrong hands, this case could spell trouble for both the wizardry and No-Maj worlds. Reporting to the Magical Congress is Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), “Yesterday, an unregistered wizard entered New York with a case full of magical creatures, and unfortunately, some have escaped.” This puts the Congress on high alert, as Senior Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) orders Tina to contain Newt.
This is the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling. Joined by Potter veteran director David Yates, the enchanted realm of mysticism is in their wheelhouse. They know how to draw the audience into a character driven story with a dash of magic wands and spells. It also helps to have a $180 million budget to create the inspired effects the audience demands.
We learn that due to persecution by a xenophobic No-Maj population, witches and wizards had to suppress their powers or operate in secrecy. Suppression was harmful and even caused death in children. The few “Obscurials” who survived, increased their unharnessed and repressed power as a blessing and a curse.
Witches and wizards must operate as a clandestine community. There is a fragile equilibrium of secrecy between the unseen world of wizards and the “No-Maj.” However, an invisible and unpredictable menace, attributed to the dark wizard, Grindelwald is wreaking havoc in the streets. This fuels a daily protest against wizardry. Graves asks, “We have lived in the shadows for too long. Who does this protect, us or them?”
Although Waterston is somewhat miscast as Tina, the other lead characters enjoy an engaging camaraderie. Meanwhile, Jon Voigt and Johnny Depp carry small roles that should develop into larger parts in the sequels. Okay, this isn’t Harry, but with a bushy mane and boyish charm, Redmayne is up to the task. If you choose, you can lose yourself in this alternate universe of magic, wonder and possibly deeper meaning.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is 133 minutes and rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence. The last several Potter books were over 600 pages each. So, the studio planned to “cram” these 128 pages of text into a movie trilogy. Then, realizing the “error” of its ways, they decided to make it a five part movie series. That’s right, five, ka-ching!
This is the first Rowling-based picture that takes place in the U.S. and feature American actors, even though it was filmed in Liverpool, go figure. To the No-Maj, this film might be a little thin and not all that “fantastic,” but Potter fans might see Newt as Graves describes, “Just like your suitcase, I think there’s more to you than meets the eye!”