‘Harry Potter’ at the movies: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ (2016) (Review)

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y series looking back at the “Harry Potter” films continues with the first prequel movie in the Wizarding World, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016):

WHY IT’S GREAT

In her first screenwriting job, J.K. Rowling resoundingly proves that the Wizarding World can maintain its fascinating quality even without Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hogwarts and English accents. Directed by David Yates (who helmed the last four “Potters”), “Fantastic Beasts” introduces a more unsung group of heroes – Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob – in 1920s New York City. Even before the plot gets off the ground, it’s a delight to watch Newt track down the escaped creatures from his magic suitcase. And when it does kick in, we get a nice launch to the saga of Grindelwald’s depredations in America, as we learn this marks his first attempt to start a Magic vs. Muggles war.

WHY IT’S NOT SO GREAT

Well, it is pretty great, but for the sake of nitpicking: Rowling once again uses the “Person X is actually Person Y” trick, revealing that MACUSA employee Mr. Graves is Grindelwald himself. But it seems more like a cheat this time, since we don’t know how Graves is supposed to behave in the first place. Also, the movie’s Big Bad is a ball of energy. That’s not a particularly fantastic beast, relatively speaking.

Even before the plot gets off the ground, it’s a delight to watch Newt track down the escaped creatures from his magic suitcase.

BEST CHARACTER AND ACTOR

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). It’s nice to see someone on the autism spectrum as a blockbuster movie lead, and even nicer that not much attention is called to it. Redmayne does a great job playing a sweet animal researcher who doesn’t make much eye contact with his fellow humans, but who clearly loves all the creatures in his magic case. Self-admittedly “annoying” to many, he stumbles upon true pals in Tina, Queenie and Jacob (all of whom have some quirks of their own); they might even rival his four-legged friends. The saga will get grander in subsequent films, but it will likely remain a journey of growth for Newt at its core.

MOST FANTASTIC BEAST

The Niffler. This literal money-grubbing little bugger was first mentioned by Rowling in the “Goblet of Fire” novel, but this marks his movie debut. It’s funny to watch Newt turn him upside-down and shake loose all the coins.

BEST MOVIE MAGIC

The sequence where Newt and Jacob try to recapture the erumpent in Central Park is amusing, with the rhinoceros-sized beast sliding around on the ice and chasing Jacob up a tree. It’s amazing what can be done with special effects nowadays, and also amazing that we hardly think about it anymore.

BEST COMEDIC BIT

When the plump Jacob meets the lithe and pretty Queenie and they are completely smitten with each other, it’s cute and even somewhat plausible (as a Legilimens, she can read his mind, and therefore she doesn’t judge a book by its cover). It also features funny bits like Queenie noting that he shouldn’t worry: “Most guys think what you was thinking first time they see me.”

BEST DRAMATIC BIT

Newt and Tina are about to be put to death by the Graves-influenced MACUSA, but the real pain for Newt is the idea that his creatures might be harmed by the heavy-handed bureaucrats. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

WHERE IT RANKS

“Fantastic Beasts” is a great launch to this five-film prequel saga. I like how this foursome just kind of stumbles into a bigger plot; this isn’t a Chosen One and his helpers, but rather everyday Wizarding World folk (and one Muggle ally). The references to familiar “Harry Potter” names like Dumbledore, the Lestrange family and Grindelwald are welcome tie-ins, and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together (next up is “The Crimes of Grindelwald” in November). But it’s especially impressive that “Beasts” stands on its own thanks to Rowling’s new characters, creatures and world-building.