J.K. Rowling has revealed herself to be a superb Scribomagus.
OK, so that wasn’t an actual magical ability in the Wizarding World, but the point is Rowling has indeed performed a flawless transformation from novelist to screenwriter. In other words, the “Harry Potter” author’s feature script debut is more Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” than Cormac McCarthy’s “The Counselor.”
There were initial fears that Rowling will traverse the verbose, wandering and more-fitting-as-a-book avenue as McCarthy’s Ridley Scott-powered crime thriller has done. Yet, with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” Rowling confidently fashioned a universe with as much wonder and layer as that of the “Harry Potter” series—abrupt tonal shifts aside.
New York, 1926. Despite a postcard-perfect and glossy coat thanks to veteran cinematographer Philippe Rousselot’s majestic lensing, the city is on edge as humans, or No-Majs (“Muggles” in British English), are at odds with members of the magical world. The protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, donning much wisdom and kindness despite a healthy dose of social awkwardness), is promptly made aware of the conflict soon as he enters the Big Apple. There’s no reason to mind it—yet—since Newt’s business and interests are reserved, almost exclusively, for the remarkable creatures inside his leather suitcase.
Design-wise, the beasts earn the descriptor in the title and demonstrate, if only a slice, of Rowling’s creativity. Most are cute—the bauble-hoarding Niffler and clingy, stick insect-inspired Bowtruckle are scene-stealers—while a few are high-risk—a gorgeous serpentine-bird hybrid called an occamy or the violent obscurial that Newt has quarantined. Each creature’s uniqueness as well as Wizarding World-go-to-filmmaker David Yates’ deft handling of their dedicated sequences provide much exhilaration, a necessary antidote after the bewilderingly flawed “The Legend of Tarzan.”
As to why the beasts must be found, per the second part of the title, it all begins when No-Maj factory worker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, turning up the endearing-o-meter in every minute) wrongly assumes Newt’s suitcase as his and sets a few of the beasts loose. The incident catches the attention of Tina Goldstein (a feisty, exacting Katherine Waterston), a discredited Auror, and soon enough her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol, also known as A Fine Frenzy, convincing as a seductress with a heart of gold) is also involved.
The Goldsteins work for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), a powerful institution with much mystique and secrecy. This is also where the story’s dark aspects surface—the most prominent being head of security Percival Graves’ (an underused Colin Farrell) investigation into the tortured life of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, skillfully weaving between being vulnerable and rage), a young member of an anti-magic society.
While Rowling is a masterful navigator within grim-but-universal issues—chiefly prejudice, power and mortality—whenever they are on screen “Fantastic Beasts” becomes a different movie. The switches, which play out like book chapters, prevent the film’s components from bonding seamlessly in terms of structure and mood. “Harry Potter,” as individual films or the whole series, has a more organic progression from lightness to otherwise.
The first film in this franchise, which released 15 years ago today, was also smarter by focusing on the characters first and honing in on the scope later.
But Rowling is just starting out, seeing that there are four more planned films in store. After all, Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is on the rise, Newt himself still has plenty of mysteries and it would be brutal if everything about the U.S. School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Ilvermorny, is just a single mention.
Also, additional servings of James Newton Howard’s elegant contribution to the Rowling-operated realm of fantasy are always necessary for life.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
Eddie Redmayne (Newt), Katherine Waterston (Tina), Dan Fogler (Jacob), Alison Sudol (Queenie), Colin Farrell (Percival), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphina), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou)
Directed by: David Yates (last four “Harry Potter” films)
Written by: J.K. Rowling (debut screenplay), “Newt Scamander” (based on the book by)
Music by: James Newton Howard (“The Hunger Games”)
Cinematography by: Philippe Rousselot (“Sherlock Holmes”)
133 min., PG-13
Release date: Nov.18
8.5 out of 10.