J.K. Rowlings’s ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is high-flying fun
Of the many fantastic beasts that are found in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the most emblematic is a cobalt blue snake-bird called the Occamy. It lays eggs with shells made of silver and it grows to fill any available space.
So, too, does this new movie gimcrack from the imagination of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling — the author’s first original screenplay (albeit one based on a spinoff creature guide) and the initial salvo in what is promised to be a five-film series, should our world of Muggles survive to see them all.
Early reports have indicated that “Fantastic Beasts” is a dark political metaphor for our times, even the “first anti-Trump blockbuster” in the words of one excitable critic. Would that were true. Directed more than capably by David Yates, who brought the last four “Potter” films to the screen, the new film is a juicily enjoyable crowd-pleaser that works hard at expanding to fit the size of its ambitions and that wants to give the audience a high old time while slipping in reminders of how low some people may sink in the pursuit of power. (It’s fine for all but the littlest audiences, who may be more confused than scared.)
First, though, here’s Eddie Redmayne as our dithery young hero Newt Scamander, arriving in 1920s Manhattan with a valise full of . . . something. Or somethings, since a few of them get out early after his arrival. One is a Niffler, a sort of platypus with an attitude and Scrooge McDuck’s love of shiny things, and you can bet your kid will be hollering for a stuffed one this holiday season.
Newt is a naturalist of the magical otherworld, an ecological protector of species humans can’t see and wizards don’t like. He arrives in America from a Europe that is threatened by a rising dictator-wizard named Grindlewald and immediately is plunged into stateside politics of the magical and Muggle spheres. By now, Yates and his production team know how to create a blockbuster fantasy universe with craft and intelligence, and the film’s New York is a bulging period delight to the senses.
Yet dark, too — the downtown Wizard headquarters of MACUSA, overseen by Madam President (Carmen Ejogo), may remind you of nothing so much as the Kafkaesque office building in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” As Newt races around the city trying to recapture his critters, he is arrested and then befriended by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a prim young MACUSA investigator; their warming relationship is one of the easier and more pleasurable threads to follow.
Better still, Newt soon has a Muggle companion — they call them No-Majs in America — in the form of a roly-poly would-be baker named Jacob Kowalski, who in Dan Fogler’s exuberant playing is actually the most fantastic beast in the entire movie. It’s a smart move on Rowling’s part to provide an audience surrogate in this whirligig confabulation, and Fogler plays beautifully to the back of the house. His is a ripe 1930s character-part performance, and when the film pairs him with Porpentina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a tootsie who suggests a genetic fusion of Cameron Diaz and Carole Lombard, “Fantastic Beasts” taps into a vein of classic-movie heaven.
But there are villains to uncover and victims to identify. A fanatic witch-hater (Samantha Morton) passes out paranoid leaflets on the city streets, warning humans of the unseen wizard world, and the put-upon orphans in her care include a creepy young girl (Faith Wood-Blagrove) and a miserable teenage boy (Ezra Miller).
Colin Farrell turns up as Percival Graves, one of Madame President’s more independent-minded lieutenants, and Jon Voight is seen as a human media baron guiding his entitled son (Josh Chowdery) toward what briefly resembles a Trump-like political coronation. There’s Ron Perlman under heavy digital makeup as a file-toothed fence, and, toward the end, a glimpse of someone who stands to take up a larger part of the sequels. If “Fantastic Beasts” Part 1 has a key fault, it’s that the movie spends so much time rising the rafters and drywall of a world we’ll be spending a lot of time in.
Rowling proves to be a good, sharp hand with dialogue while still having a ways to go in terms of shaping a movie; that said, you can feel her enjoyment in exploring the terrain she has created. The movie tries to do too much, not least of all deliver the pixellated fun of the title creatures, some of which are memorable (a horny rhinoceros called an Erumpent, for one) and some of which are not (the invisible hyperactive sloth, enough said).
It wants to dazzle us with blockbuster plenty; James Newton Howard’s score never lets up, other than to sidestep occasionally into a playful piano rag. And it wants to warn us about political strongmen, and suppressed adolescent rage, and the madness of crowds, and the dangers of prejudice, and the risks of isolationism. “I need an insect!” yells Newt Scamander at one particularly critical juncture. “Any kind of insect! And a teapot!” “Fantastic Beasts” gives you the insect, the teapot, and the whole painstakingly digitized kitchen sink.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
Directed by David Yates. Written by J.K. Rowling. Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordan’s Furniture IMAX in Natick and Reading. 132 minutes. PG-13 (fantasy action violence).