By now Warner Brother’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them” has been wowing critics and movie audiences the world over. It’s a grand feat that has turned out to be rather simple for the production studios due to the dedicated contribution of the source herself. Celebrated novelist JK Rowling had written the seven-book epic of “Harry Potter”, a boy wizard and his struggles with a monstrous dark lord who destroyed his family and threatened the world, prime material for a movie series spanning eight films in all.
She had also penned a plethora of side books and short stories that fill in the gaps of the greater “Wizarding World” that Harry and his friends and foes lived in. So when she was announced to be the screenwriter for “Fantastic Beasts”, inspired by the title of an in-universe book owned by Harry and also de-fictionalized by Rowling, fans of the world’s most famous young wizard waited with great anticipation to see her big-screen writing debut.
Lev Grossman of Time once wrote about the similarities “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” have with, of all franchises, “Twilight”, in that all three story-verses have a quality that made their readers “want to climb into the pages and live there”, as all three book series have a degree of world- building and “integrity that made you feel like you could buy real estate there”. Indeed, Rowling has that flair of describing locations in her books like you were standing right there with the characters experiencing it all. She thus achieves the same effect with her screenplay of “Fantastic Beasts”, along with additional input from producer David Heyman, writer Steve Kloves, and director David Yates.
One of the most eagerly awaited elements of this film is the dramatic change of setting from the Harry Potter stories despite being set in the same fictional universe. For one thing, it’s set decades before the original books and films, in the roaring 1920s. Furthermore, rather than magical Britain the locale is New York City in Magical America, which has only been fleetingly referenced before. Obviously the main draw of “Fantastic Beasts” was the cultural dissonance, time-wise and place-wise, between the familiar British-ness of Harry’s tale and this one, which relates the story of British wizard, Ministry of Magic employee and magi-zoologist Newton Artemis Fido Scamander – “Newt” for short – who travels to the United States sometime before sitting down and writing his reference book for magical creatures around the world.
When Newt (played by Eddie Redmayne) blunders his way through 1920s customs with a seemingly rowdy suitcase, the story kicks into gear. His mission in America is a personal one, but he also stumbles into something of a magical crisis situation. Buildings in Manhattan are being wrecked by apparently magical means. A fiery crusader speaks of the magic, witches and wizards hidden among the general population and calls on them to take violent action. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is swamped enough trying to secure their borders against the entry of notorious
Dark Wizard demagogue Gellert Grindelwald (a delightful cameo). And when Newt accidentally switches luggage with portly Polish-Brooklynian and World War I veteran Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the situation descends into total chaos.
See, Newt’s luggage is a magical bigger-on- the-inside menagerie for many magical creatures he has acquired and rescued in his trip all over five continents, and Jacob releases some of them when he opens the case. The British wizard is apprehended by American ex-auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is rebuffed by her superiors, Magical Security director Graves (Colin Farrell) and MACUSA president Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). Here it’s made plain that American magical society is much more rigid than Britain’s, and when Newt goes on the run to recover his escaped beasties along with Jacob before they get blamed for the recent disturbances, Tina is forced to tag along, accompanied by her flighty flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Their mission has the group crossing paths with the fire- and-brimstone “Second Salemers” led by Mary Loue Barebone (Samantha Morton), and one of her adopted children may hold a dark secret that’s causing the destruction.
Just from that blurb alone you can tell that “Fantastic Beasts” is not strictly a kid’s movie with the darkness and violence that leaps at you from the get-go. The titular beasts are rendered in masterful Potter CGI magic to run the gamut from the funny Niffler, to the awe-inspiring Thunderbird, to the eerie Obscurus. Their traits make for some madcap and thrilling visuals as Newt and his companions try to contain them, in particular one final creature that wrecks 1920s Manhattan in something of a sendup to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Originally slated as a trilogy, “Fantastic Beasts” is now known to be a five-film series, so it’s clear that audiences have barely scratched the surface of the early 20 th Century Wizarding World. With all production sure to reprise and Rowling already finished with the screenplay for film #2, we can be sure that Newt Scamander and his Fantastic Beasts will be thrilling us with magic for years to come.
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