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'Fantastic Beasts' fantastic indeed

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Engaging prequel a worthy addition to J.K. Rowling's Potterverse

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood delved into J.K. Rowling's imagination once again. The rich fantasy world that was the 'Harry Potter' franchise might have run its course in many ways, but there was never any doubt that Rowling was prepared to offer much more of the story.

And so we get 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,' a sort of Potter-adjacent prequel that gives audiences the opportunity to experience that massive magical realm outside the context of the Hogwarts-centered good/evil dichotomy that served as the foundation of the Harry Potter novels and movies.

It's a chance to see the wider world that is merely hinted at in those books and films, a chance to enjoy the wizarding of different times and places while still staying true to the baseline ideals of Rowling's intricately-constructed universe.

And it's a chance well worth taking.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, 'The Danish Girl') is an expert in all things involving magical creatures, spending years on a globe-spanning adventure trying to document every bit of information he can about the wondrous variety of fantastic beasts.

In 1926, he has made his way to the United States. He's in New York City for what is intended to be a brief stopover, but instead he winds up entangled with a No-Maj (that's American for 'muggle') named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, 'Custody') due to circumstances that involve an escaped magical creature and an inadvertent exchange of briefcases that results in even more beasts set loose on New York City.

Newt is taken into custody by a witch named Tina (Katherine Waterston, 'Steve Jobs') who works for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (or MCUSA). However, she has been demoted due to past indiscretions; Head Auror Graves (Colin Farrell, 'The Lobster') and the MCUSA president (Carmen Ejogo, 'Selma') are more interested in finding ways to head off the impending outing of the magical community to the world at large.

A group of fanatics devoted to exposing the magical realm led by the enigmatic Mary Lou (Samantha Morton, 'Miss Julie') is also in the mix; Mary Lou's 'foster' children like Credence (Ezra Miller, 'Suicide Squad'), Chastity (Jenn Murray, 'Love & Friendship') and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove in her feature debut) also work prominently in the movement despite Mary Lou's bizarre and abusive attitudes.

It's up to Newt along with Tina, Jacob and Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, 'Between Us') to track down all of his escaped creatures before they can cause too much damage. They also have to try and prove that the dark force causing the most destruction and the most risk of exposure for the magical community is not a beast that came from his case.

There's a LOT going on in 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.' While this isn't necessarily a whole new world being introduced, there's still a lot of ground to cover it's essentially a period piece set in Rowling's wizarding world. Thankfully, the preexisting Potterverse allows for a degree of storytelling shorthand; certain basic concepts are considered to be givens, which gives the considerable amount of new information room to breathe a bit.

In essence, this movie seems aimed at those fans who grew up alongside Harry, Hermione, Ron and the rest it's an adult movie built on that original youth-oriented foundation. Those kids from years past are now grown; 'Fantastic Beasts' gives them a look at that same world through the eyes of an older protagonist. That's not to say younger audiences won't enjoy this film they definitely will but it definitely hits the ground running with a degree of darkness that the original movies took a bit more time to reach.

Eddie Redmayne continues the grand tradition of talented British actors excelling in the world that Rowling has created. His take on Newt Scamander somehow manages to be awkward, abrasive and endearing all at once. He radiates a twitchy charm that makes him likeable just as it makes him exasperating. It's a wonderful performance. Waterston gives Tina a sense of railing against her own inherent mousiness combined with a burning desire to see justice done. She's also not afraid to allow for the occasional off-putting moment; the dynamic between Waterston and Redmayne is great fun to watch. And Fogel is absolutely phenomenal as the out-of-his-depth Jacob we rarely get to enjoy a non-magical character in this context and Fogel just nails it. Seriously his might be the funniest (and ultimately most moving) performance in the film.

Farrell is good for reasons that can't be delved into too deeply; Morton is all darkness and severity. Miller and Sodol are both strong, though really, everybody is good (including Jon Voight as a No-Maj publishing magnate).

And then of course, there are the beasts themselves. Sprung from Rowling's imagination, seeing all of these incredible creatures gracing the screen is an absolute delight. The effects work is stunning, creating scores of beautiful beasts that scamper and soar all over the screen. Big and small, it's an undeniably impressive collection.

Director David Yates directed the last handful of 'Harry Potter' movies, so there's no denying that he's on the same page as Rowling and the rest of the folks making this film happen. He has a level of comfort as far as combining fantastical special effects with relatively grounded storytelling in terms of relationships. That's not an easy equilibrium to find, but Yates has a proven track record of making it work. He might not be a grand vision auteur-type, but that's not what this film needs the epic nature of the story is self-evident. He's the ideal choice to shepherd this movie and this series forward.

'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' is a worthy addition to the Harry Potter canon, bringing a whole new perspective to a beloved universe. With plenty of humor and heart, it is a delightful cinematic experience.

It is, in a word, fantastic.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:25

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