Friday, November 18, 2016

Creatures are far cuter than terrifying in fun-filled ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

By Steve Crum
The joyful absurdities and frightful images peppering the self-described Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are reason enough to see this fun flick. There is also an engaging performance by Eddie Redmayne, who has had a run of Oscar worthy turns over the past couple of years. In 2014, he won the Best Actor for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything
His role as central character Newt Scamander is not much of an acting stretch, however, since he is repeatedly prone to display wonderment and slight reserve. But that is OK, since the role demands such and little more. Fantastic Beasts, after all, is from the Harry Potter school of actors who have learned to act and react against blue screen for effects that will be added later.
Speaking of Master Potter, J. K. Rowling wrote the Fantastic Beasts screenplay as well as the book it is based upon. Need I remind anyone she is also the author of all the Harry Potter books? This is her first attempt at adapting one of her works for the screen, and she does a good job, despite stretches of dialogue—and silence—that could have been tightened. Movie pacing is different from book pacing. 
So what we get with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter series, even though there is no Harry himself depicted or referenced. But there is mention of Hogwarts, Potter’s wizard academy, as well as talk of a few familiar Potter characters. The story opens in 1926 New York City, as Redmayne’s Newt arrives by ship and goes through customs. He is carrying one medium-sized suitcase, but what a suitcase it is. It moves like there is something inside. There is. (Spoiler alert.) Magically past security, Newt wanders into NYC, and soon the first of many creatures is accidentally unleashed. 
Be aware that what follows is an outbreak of unique animals and insects that are either terrorizing or burglarizing Big Apple citizenry. Thank goodness for 21st Century digital effects, which make the impossible seem so real. The “beasts” are indeed “fantastic.” I have to mention my favorite, the first to escape Newt’s grasp. He/She/It is a Niffler, a platypus-looking cutie driven to steal jewelry and coins via pickpocketing and outright store and bank break-ins. This comedy relief creature should be a merchandizing goldmine since it’s already being sold as a toy this Christmas season.
Turns out that there is a literally underground witch and wizard society in NYC, and when they get wind of Newt’s arrival, he is under severe scrutiny. He is particularly targeted by the most evil among them, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). There is also a Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) that seeks to track and control the wizard/witch population. So enters Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), who is assigned to accompany Newt and monitor his activities during his visit as a rep of the Ministry of Magic.
Integral to the likability of Fantastic Beasts is the totally human character, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who crosses paths with Newt by accidentally switching suitcases with him. 
A dozen-plus characters of various degrees of humanity and outer worldliness round out the fantasy tale. Look for Jon Voight (a powerful magnate), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack the goblin gangster), and…a secret already disclosed publicly…Johnny Depp as Gellert Grinedelwald, a dark wizard. Depp is slated to have a much larger part in the next Newt Scamander film, out in two years. 
Bets are on that this will be a mega-hit since four sequels are planned with release dates of two years apart. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter movies, is slated to handle all of Newt’s adventures. Whether or not Rowling plans to write future screenplays in the series is unknown. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B