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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review: Of Warmth and Craftsmanship

By  · Published on November 16th, 2016

Fantastic Warmth and Where to Find It

The sumptuously-designed Harry Potter spinoff is lush, thrilling and warmly welcome.

After the Avada Kedavra spell the presidential election cast upon the entire United States, arrives Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: a good-natured, peace-filled and stunning Harry Potter franchise spin-off based on J. K. Rowling’s 2001 book, written under the pseudonym Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts is a spellbinding standout in its unintended timeliness. Not only is this pre-Great Depression world gorgeous, lush and opulently rich, but is also subtly full of progressive political statements that cut too close to the bone when viewed through the lens of the past week. In this world, MACUSA, the greatest governmental body of the American wizarding population, is lead by a powerful female president (commandingly played by Carmen Ejogo). Immigration is embraced. Peacekeeping and diplomacy are valued. And people seem to be willing to accept that they’ve been wrong about what they baselessly fear and gravely misunderstand. The magical creatures of British magizoologist Newt Scamander, the aforementioned imaginary author, for instance.

The jazz-age-set, New York-based universe of Fantastic Beasts is at once warmly familiar to those of us who have been dearly missing the magical world of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Even though our old friends don’t even exist in this chapter, their beloved school Hogwarts and its legendary headmaster Albus Dumbledore are cheerily name-checked. The compassionate, cuddly and geeky British lad Scamander is played by Eddie Redmayne with his now signature, adorable bashfulness that fits the character like a glove (or, like the period’s splendored cloche hats.) Scamander arrives New York in mid-1920s with his magically vast suitcase, full of fantastical and surprising creatures (that resemble real-life animals like rhinos, porcupines and platypuses) he studies and protects. Due to a mix-up of suitcases, he is obligatorily joined by a well-meaning nosy muggle baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and loses a few of his beasts along the way, while risking the exposure of the entire wizarding world (fans of the franchise surely know this is a big no-no.) Oh and by the way, the oblivious muggles have a different name in the land that calls aubergines “eggplants”: No-Mags.

The Uncertainty of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

With his beasts roaring in the New York City streets of the roaring 20s – and with one endearing and lovable kleptomaniac named Niffler frequently stealing the scene – Scamander grabs the attention of Porpentina Goldstein, an investigator of the American Wizarding Association. Porpentina lives with her sister Queenie – a gifted, soft-spoken mind reader with a growing romantic interest in Kowalski – in their quaint, charmingly appointed apartment. This unlikely batch spreads out across town amid a growing unrest caused by an unknown dark force (there are inexplicable explosions everywhere that terrorize No-Mags) and try to bring order back into both communities of people. Meanwhile, we slowly get introduced to the source of the evil: a young, mighty wizarding student named Credence (Ezra Miller) with lots of ill-channeled power that rings a young ‘Tom Riddle’ of sorts, as well as the boundlessly evil wizarding legend Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). There is also the handsomely dressed and severely mannered Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who fallaciously coaches the young Credence. These dark, busy alleys of storylines don’t quite gel and slightly distract from an otherwise impeccably conceived concept. Though the good news is, they also signal that further installments of Fantastic Beasts will arrive in the future. In fact, four more of them have already been announced.

With Fantastic Beasts, David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films) once again proves that his direction and visual foresight are the perfect fit for J. K. Rowling’s timeless tale of good vs. evil and scrupulously built universe of witchcraft and wizardry. He seems to know exactly how to balance his loyalty to source material with the enrichment and alteration any screen adaptation of literary work requires. The real victors of Fantastic Beasts however are all of its below-the-line craftsmen. From Phillippe Rousselot’s rich photography to Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s sumptuous production design, Fantastic Beasts is a visual jaw-dropper of the best kind. Colleen Atwood, who put her stamp on the fantastical looks of The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children earlier this year, delivers her best 2016 work with swoon-worthy flapper fashion. All that said the next installment of Fantastic Beasts, its kindly heroes and creatures, and timely themes of acceptance and unity couldn’t possibly arrive fast enough. This is one cinematic universe I will gladly get behind.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.