When Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne) was first mentioned in the debut Harry Potter novel “Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone” I doubt even the most ardent fans knew he would become the face of the next wizard world franchise. But he has done just that, to remarkable effect, in the first installment of what is expected to be a five-film saga.
“Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them” is a visual treat, even if the story is a bit thin. In her debut as a screenwriter, J.K. Rowling does a nice job of taking a seemingly minor detail from the Harry Potter series and turning it into a full-fledged adventure. This is the backstory of Scarmander, proud Hufflepuff and former Hogwarts student who would go on to write the aforementioned textbook. Set seventy years prior to the Potter series, this new saga opens in New York City, where again witches and wizards live in secret among muggles, or “No-Maj” as they are called in America. Scarmander arrives in the city and through a series of (forgive me Lemony Snicket) unfortunate events, the magical creatures he has collected in his enchanted case throughout his travels are unleashed on the citizens of New York.
Throughout his adventures to recapture these fascinating (and sometimes frightening) creatures, Scarmander meets Porpintina/Tina (Katherine Waterston), an Auror working for the MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America), her younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), whose talent is Legilimency (mind-reading), and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a canning factory worker and muggle who is looking to open his own bakery. As these four work to find the missing beasts, they encounter Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), who is running an orphanage in which she has the children distribute anti-witch leaflets. Her son, Credence (Ezra Miller) seems to disapprove of his mother’s ideology and is meeting in secret with MACUSA Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). The search is also on in New York for Gellert Grindelwald, one of the most dangerous dark wizards of all-time (second only to Voldemort, the principle villain of the Potter series). I won’t reveal who plays this character as it is a fun surprise, but this actor is set to appear in the second film as Grindelwald, the primary adversary to Scarmander.
Fans of the Harry Potter series will find plenty of easter eggs in this film, including references to popular characters from the first series and some visual references to the British wizarding world. I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of humorous moments found within the film, especially involving Kowalski. Fogler, a veteran of several Broadway shows including “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is perfectly cast in this role. The rest of the cast is wonderful as well and the creatures are at times adorable and other times frightening or repulsive. The middle of the film does drag a bit and I did feel at times that it felt like a set-up for the whole series. But those are small quibbles about what otherwise is a great escape. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment in 2018.
**** out of *****
“Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them”
Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
Now playing in cinemas nationwide
Photo: Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scarmander in “Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them”