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Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes to New York City in 1926 unaware that shadowy forces are threatening to expose the wizarding world to American Muggles, known as No-Majs. One of them, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, "Balls of Fury") inadvertently allows some of the magical creatures in Newt's multi-dimensional suitcase to escape, drawing the unwanted attention of Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."
If hearing about screenwriter J.K. Rowling's prequel to her Harry Potter world sounded like milking the cow, as it did to me, you are in for a real treat. David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films, maintains an orienting aesthetic that welcomes us back as Rowling spins out new characters which continue her themes of fighting against fascism, oppression and child abuse, never more relevant. And it's more inclusive, an average human fighting by the side of wizards. The film goes to some very dark places, but it also displays a whole new level of uproarious playfulness.
The film's opening credits are awash with wizarding news headlines about the disappearance of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald after plunging Europe into havoc. Then Newt arrives, setting the Muggle safety switch on his suitcase for inspection. Exploring the city, Newt stops to listen to Second Salem's Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) proselytizing against the dark forces which have been making appearances as destructive swirling black clouds. It is here, in front of a bank, that Newt's troubles begin when he spies his Niffler, a creature that looks like a cute platypus with a magpie's love of shiny objects, loose. In trying to recapture it, Kowalski, a cannery worker applying for a business loan to open a bakery, ends up as his accomplice, but disappears into the crowd before Newt can obliviate him.
Much of this activity has been observed by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, "Inherent Vice"), a former Auror wishing to regain her investigative status. She tries to alert MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo, "Selma," "Born to Be Blue") to Newt's infractions, but ends up under suspicion alongside him by Graves. The duo relocate Jacob after he's attacked by Newt's murtlap and hide him in Tina's rooms where an immediate attraction forms between Jacob and Tina's sister Queenie (the delightfully period perfect Alison Sudol) over a shared love of the culinary arts. Meanwhile, after Mary Lou drags adopted children Credence (Ezra Miller, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"), Chastity (Jenn Murray, "Love & Friendship") and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) to engage newspaper owner Henry Shaw, Sr (Jon Voight), his son, Senator Langdon Shaw (Ronan Raftery), is murdered by the very force she's warning against.
But rarely are things what they seem in the Potterverse and such is the case here. Twice, the film plops a cliche in our lap, only to upend it. A big red herring enables a third act twist which leads to the unveiling of the film's real villain. But Yates balances all the darkness with scenes of wonder, such as Jacob's introduction to just what's in Newt's suitcase, a marvel of production design and special effects. In their attempt to recapture an Erumpent, a gigantic creature that looks like an elephant and the terrified rhino it's trying to mate with, Redmayne is forced to draw away its attention with more enthusiasm while Jacob overdoses on the musk it responds to. It's a great bit of comical slapstick. There is a mixture of suspense and comedy when Newt's forced to hand over Pickett, the Bowtruckle which resembles a mini-Groot, to Gnarlack (voice of Ron Perlman) in exchange for information. And while this series' characters are all adults, Rowling's advocacy for children couldn't be stronger, especially when one of her threats turns out to be a reimagining of Poltergeist activity.
There are many threads to Potter's world across the ocean as Rowling creates their American parallels, like the Thunderbird to Dumbledore's Phoenix. She's crafted an excellent expansion where things feel familiar but not repetitious. "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is not only a great family adventure, but one of the most political films of the year.
Robin did not see this film.
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