Almost 20 years ago, J.K. Rowling’s first book in the Harry Potter series was published, capturing the imagination of a worldwide audience. Now, Warner Bros. and Rowling have collaborated on a new film with ties to Potter. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on Rowling’s book of the same name. Released In 2001 as a fundraiser for Comic Relief, the book is supposed to be a textbook used by Potter and his classmates.
As she was writing Fantastic Beasts, Rowling thought a great deal about who its fictional author, Newt Scamander, was. So, when Warner Bros. approached her about turning the book into a movie, Rowling seized the opportunity to write her first screenplay and base it around Newt. The resulting film is directed by David Yates who helmed the final four “Harry Potter” films.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British Magizoologist, comes to New York in 1926 on a mission. He carries with him a leather case containing the “fantastic beasts” of the title. These are rare, magical, endangered creatures which Newt has been caring for and studying. He wants to return one of these beasts, the Thunderbird, to its home in Arizona. But, another magical creature, the kleptomaniac Niffler, escapes, sidetracking Newt’s plans.
While searching for the Niffler, Newt meets aspiring entrepreneur Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a “No-Maj”- the American equivalent of a “Muggle” (for anyone unfamiliar with the Potter universe, both terms refer to a non-magical person). After Jacob accidentally picks up Newt’s leather case, Newt is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an investigator for MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the USA). Tina saw Newt practice magic in public, a direct violation of the American wizarding community’s Statue of Secrecy. Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), eventually team in hopes of saving Newt’s escaped beasts which are wrongly accused of wreaking havoc in New York City. At the same time, the wizarding community faces danger in the form the New Salem Philanthropic Society (NSPS), an anti-wizarding group which is advocating for a “Second Salem” of witch hunts.
As in the “Harry Potter” film series, there are dark undertones to the action. An evil European wizard, Gellert Grindelwald, has disappeared after raising troubling ideas of racial superiority. Mrs. Barebone of the NSPS (Samantha Morton) lures street children in with food and then recruits them to help spread her message of hate against the wizarding community.
Led by Oscar-winner Redmayne, the cast brings Rowling’s new set of heroes and villains (all adults this time) to life. Redmayne’s Newt is hesitant around people but very confident when working with animals. Sudol and Waterston bring a nice balance of differing personalities to the two sister characters. Waterston’s Tina is serious and slightly distant while Sudol’s Queenie is warm, upbeat and caring. As Jacob the No-Maj, Fogler conveys a sincere level of shock when first encountering magic but then quickly becomes invested in the new world he has stumbled upon. The opposite can be said of Morton’s severe Mrs. Barebone. She has adopted a number of children, giving them all “virtuous” names, but her outlook is one of fear and anger.
Helping to bring the details of Newt’s adventures to the screen are a collection of talented artists. The creation of the title beasts fell to the production team headed by visual effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz. Their CGI creatures add to the wizarding world’s menagerie. The Niffler (which resembles a platypus) is a scene-stealer, as is Pickett, the tiny, plant-like Bowtruckle. Other creatures include the endangered Graphorn, the Nundu, and the Demiguise.
Known for her many collaborations with director Tim Burton, costume designer Coleen Atwood has applied her attention to detail to “Fantastic Beasts.” Her creations range from flapper dresses (Atwood previously designed Roaring ‘20s costumes for 2002’s “Chicago”), to Newt’s black and yellow Hufflepuff scarf, and an overcoat that flows like a cape for MACUSA Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). Atwood’s costuming of Credence (Ezra Miller), the oldest adopted son of Mrs. Barebone, recalls the on-screen attire of silent film star Buster Keaton with a flat-brimmed hat and ill-fitting clothes.
Scoring the film is James Newton Howard. In a nod to veteran composer John Williams (composer on the first three “Harry Potter” films), Howard incorporates traces of Williams’ instantly recognizable “Hedwig’s Theme” into the soundtrack of “Fantastic Beasts.” Howard’s original compositions range from sumptuous orchestrals to nods to 1920s American jazz and popular music.
Stuart Craig, the production designer of all eight “Harry Potter” films, has created yet another group of detailed settings. Ranging from the cramped, dark, church-like headquarters of the NSPS to the soaring, light-filled MACUSA skyscraper (which also has its own dark, slightly ominous basement), the sets enhance the mood of the action.
Even if it wasn’t connected to the “Harry Potter” series, “Fantastic Beasts” could stand on its own as a fantasy adventure with parallels to present day conflicts. As producer David Hayman notes, Rowling touches on a subject that also appeared in the “Harry Potter” canon: “tolerance in contrast to the dangers of intolerance and repression.” Sadly, could any theme be more timely, or urgent, in post-election 2016 America?