Rated PG-13. Running time:2 hours 13 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 3; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
O let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
but establish the righteous,
you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God.
J.K. Rowling might be done with Harry Potter, but not with his world of magic. You might call this tale, reportedly the first of a series of 5, a spin-off because it is about the author of the book studied by Harry during his student days at Hogwarts, the title of which is the same as this movie’s. Newton “Newt” Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist, has been around the world studying exotic creatures, some of which he is carrying in a brown suitcase with brass clasps, one of which frequently opens. He intends to stop in New York for just a brief time, but his plan goes awry due to the escape of Niffler, a small platypus-like creature, and the wizard’s subsequent run-in with the local magical community, upset that he has created such a ruckus. Exotic animals are forbidden in New York, and the Magical Congress of the United States of America (M.A.C.U.S.A.) is trying to keep a low profile. This is with good reason because of mysterious attacks that have broken out, which coincide with the disappearance in Europe of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) after creating chaos there. The public’s hostility toward wizards is stoked each day by Second Salemite activist Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). Like overly zealous street preachers, they rail against wizards while passing out pamphlets embedded with their bigoted rants.
On the day of Newt’s arrival, a no-maj, as muggles are called in America, Jacob Kowlaski (Dan Fogler), is seeking a bank loan so he can achieve his dream. A creative baker, he hopes to escape his job in a drab factory by opening a bakery. The suitcase he is carrying with samples of his pastries looks just like Newts. However, the stodgy loan officer, not impressed by the beautiful examples, turns him down because he has no collateral. Afterward, during the chaos caused Niffler’s escaping and turning the bank almost upside down, the two cases become switched. By the time the two owners come together other creatures also have escaped.
Enter Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a M.A.C.U.S.A.) agent out of favor with her superiors, who spots Newt and follows him, discovering thereupon that he is trying to recover the runaways. Jacob is caught up in the tangle events, along with Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). During the mayhem, Queenie is attracted to the portly Jacob, and Tina’s initial hostility toward Newt gives way to a possible romance—more of which we will probably see in future episodes.
The middle section seems a bit over-stuffed with subplots—there is a newspaper magnate, Presidential candidate, the machinations of high-ranking wizard official Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), and the relationship between the anti-witch Mary Lou and her adopted son Credence.
J.K. Rowling has given Potter fans a delightful pre-Christmas present, which David Yates, who directed several of the earlier films, has transferred from her script to exciting live action, enhanced with brilliant special effects. The recreation of 1926 Manhattan is a delight, its streets filled with vintage automobiles and crowds in period costumes. Most memorable among those special effects is the rebuilding of the street and edifices that had just been ravaged by the fight against Grindelwald. If only Batman and Superman had had such powers, Gotham could have been spared a lot of grief from the destruction they had wrought.
The film will appeal most to those who stood in line to buy the Harry Potter books. They’re older but no doubt still filled with the sense of wonder at things seen and unseen, thanks to the inspiration of J.K. Rowling. Our new heroes are also older than the Harry of the first book, but he is as just as shy, and almost as appealing. I hope Eddie Redmayne has signed on for the entire series, because he has so captured the character’s numerous quirks that I cannot imagine anyone else in the role. And he is supported by a superb cast—in fact Dan Fogler is a real scene stealer.
The new series is also escapist, but in the best sense of the word. The film is by no means a religious one, but its underlying values are in tune with the Psalmist’s prayer that evil be defeated. We are served up lessons about the danger of intolerance and the consequences of the lust for power, and even the simple one of getting a suitcase with better locks.
This review with a set of questions will be in the Dec. 2016 issue of VP.