‘Harry Potter’ spin-off ‘Fantastic Beasts’ delights and frightens

Nov. 17, 2016, 10:53 p.m.

“Harry Potter” fanatics and newcomers alike will be wrapped up in the Wizarding World’s incredibly fun, visually gratifying newest edition, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” J.K. Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting, as well as the first in a series of five planned Harry Potter spinoff films, “Fantastic Beasts” follows the adventures of Newton “Newt” Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a shy, awkward, kindhearted British magizoologist. He’s an individual who studies magical creatures, obviously; Newt first arrives in New York City in 1926 to conduct research and finish his eponymous book.

But that is easier said than done for poor Newt, as immediately upon arriving stateside, he is accosted by Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced member of the MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic). She first takes Newt in for illegally bringing animals into the United States and then is forced to team up with Newt when many of his magical creatures escape from his Mary Poppins-like bottomless briefcase (proving that maybe she had a point about the whole not brining magical creatures into America thing). Tagging along with them are Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a clueless No-Maj — the American word for muggle, or person without magical abilities — who gets caught up in the plot after his suitcase is accidentally swapped with Newt’s. But Newt doesn’t just make friends. He also encounters adversity in the form of Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking MACUSA official, who wants to lock him away for unleashing a beast that supposedly killed an important political figure. And he becomes a target for the New Salem Preservation Society, a scarier-than-expected group that essentially wants to bring about the second coming of the Salem witch trials.

A little overwhelmed yet?

“Fantastic Beasts” introduces a huge number of plots and plot twists during a scant 133-minute runtime. Is it any wonder that character development is a bit sidelined? Redmayne does an excellent job as the bashful young wizard who warms even the coldest of hearts with the love of his creatures; he endearingly refers to himself as their “mummy.” But not even this performance can overcome the fact that Newt sometimes feels like a side character in his own movie. He can’t seem to either successfully capture his animals or to overcome the dark forces that try to stop him. Waterston gives Tina the authority and competence to position her as the real lead of the film, but she is not the real lead of the film, and her backstory and motivations remain frustratingly underdeveloped.

We’ve gotten books, a play, movies — maybe it was time for a TV show?

Because this is all without even going into Credence (Ezra Miller), the complicated adopted son of the leader of the New Salem Preservation Society Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). He’s filled with rage over being constantly called a freak and beaten by his adoptive mother for his magical heritage, although he doesn’t exhibit any magical abilities. Miller tries to give life to the tortured character. But with the time constraints, he just isn’t all that believable. He inhabits the uncomfortable bowl cut, narrowed eyes and clenched jaw of Clarence with an air of unsatisfactory shakiness. And Credence is plopped into the story with no context, just a bunch of clues that he will become much more of an important character … eventually. Maybe by Movie #3.

The special effects are at least still top-notch. An excellent, extended walkthrough of the many mystical creatures and their native habitats brings back the wonder of the earlier series. These lighter moments capture the magic that originally enthralled the millions of “Harry Potter” fans and drew them in hordes to the theaters.

But the film is not all happy go-lucky. “Fantastic Beasts” ventures into pretty dark territory for a film that claims to be family-friendly. And this is not necessarily bad. The explorations of fear and alienation and the focus on those who are punished for being different from the majority of society give the film a potent kick and relevancy. The work even features an execution scene — that luckily happens to not pan out — in which Tina is lured with beautiful memories from her own childhood into a sinking chair that is slowly lowered into a pool of “death potion.” The film achieves this deft balance between child-like fantasy and mature morbidity that the last few “Harry Potter” films (also directed by long-time series-helmer David Yates) also reached.

If you were expecting the entire movie to just be a spectacle of adorable animals and cute creatures, think again. It just isn’t that movie, and it just isn’t that franchise. Just like she wasn’t afraid to kill off characters in the original seven-book arc, J.K. Rowling isn’t afraid to get real with “Fantastic Beasts” either.

Instead, come prepared to revel in the brooding, and appreciate that the series still has the freedom to roam when it comes to dark themes about the divided times we live in. It will make the film all the more enjoyable.

Contact Olivia Popp at [email protected].

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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