J.K. Rowling’s ingenuity, now freed from the walls of old Hogwarts, gets a real work out in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Credited as scriptwriter and co-producer, Rowling has a new backdrop, the New York of 1926. She and director David Yates, a longtime vet of the Harry Potter series, charm us with the critters in question—from a Roc-sized, golden-pink Arizona thunderbird to a sentient chunk of lucky bamboo with stick arms and opposable thumbs.
We get a lot of beasts in the digital age of cinema, but Rowlings and Yates really hook us with the characters, an appealing mix of types. It’s a warmly cast comedic take on the switched-suitcase plot, mixing a British amateur cryptozoologist; a busted-down former police officer for the world of magic; her sister, a ravishing if ditzy mind-reader; and the baker Kowalski (Dan Fogler, excellent in a dapper stout-man part, dignified and calm).
TARDIS-wise, the battered leather suitcase of Hogwarts dropout Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is bigger on the inside than the outside. It’s stuffed with critters that he’s collected on his travels. One of Newt’s menagerie escapes—a mischievous mystical echidna that loves to stuff treasure into its pouch. Trying to retrieve the thieving monotreme from a bank’s vault, Newt’s suitcase gets switched and he has to track down the hapless Kowalski.
The copper-busted-down-to-clerk Porpentina Goldstein is played by pretty, sad-faced Katherine Waterston; she hauls Newt into custody for breaking quarantine laws, and this delays the rescue of the portable zoo. Though the film is set in the 1920s, it seems like the Depression, thanks to Waterston’s air of tragedy. Depression-era movie star Sylvia Sidney once said “I should have been paid by the tear,” and Waterston acts with something like Sidney’s sadness.
Enter Miss Goldstein’s glamorous sister Queenie (Alison “Fine Frenzy” Sudol)—such a doll that you can see why the ordinarily pretty Porpentina is depressed to live with her; Queenie thinks the portly Kowalski is on the cute side, even if his mind is going to need to be “obliviated” (washed, that is) once their adventure is over. Is it coincidence that Queenie was the name of a New York witch in everyone’s favorite muggle/magus romance, Bell Book and Candle?
As usual, there’s admirable Dickensian supporting work in this Rowling saga. Samantha Morton is an Aimee-Semple-McPherson-type street preacher who sermonizes in front of a banner emblazoned with a pair of large hands snapping a magic wand. Ron Perlman plays a trollish speakeasy proprietor who looks like a demon version of H. L. Mencken. Colin Farrell is magically evil as a top executive in the wizard’s world, dressed in spotless evening clothes with scarves and overcoat. It’s been a while since Farrell was this much fun, taunting a wretched orphan (Ezra Miller) whom he’s recruited as an assistant.
It’s also surprising how much feeling Yates brings to Fantastic Beasts, and how the emotions flow strong through it, particularly after the problems of wrestling the unwieldy last episodes of the Potter saga together. The little moments sing, like Queenie materializing a delicate transparent umbrella out of the point of her wand, so she can lean in for a kiss. But there are wilder effects: the flying attacks of a living ball of flaming rage, in which the effects get almost abstract—it’s like an animated version of one of Anselm Kiefer’s charred paintings. Wizards rapt away prisoners into a scribble of whirling black lights, and their wands sound off like .45 revolvers. A thwarted execution is particularly chilling in the way a pair of kind, sad nurses escort their captives to the witch-drowning pool, streaky with rust and mildew.
You’d want to see Philippe Rousselot’s photography on an IMAX screen if possible, to take in the immaculate New York City landscapes, with their pomp and squalor. The effects dazzle, but you may need an obliviation spell to forget having seen similar ones in Doctor Strange—the buildings that repair themselves, or the apple that eats itself while floating in the air.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them