As the Potter films became more numerous, their wide-eyed whimsicality was dampened by their darker, more “adult” ambitions, thereby losing what made them special in the search to be “important.” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” returns the franchise to its lighthearted roots and is all the better for it. I mean, come on, only so much dramatic weight can be applied to two guys waving sticks at each other, right?
The title is no lie; fantastic beasts are aplenty, and, unfortunately for the citizens of New York City, running amok. Fantastic is the right word, as the creatures range from an avaricious mammal with a platypus base—as if the platypus wasn’t already weird enough—to a colossal rhino with a gelatinous cranium and a thing for perfume. Their wrangler is the young Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who keeps them all in his abnormally spacious briefcase, where he studies them for the purpose of writing an encyclopedia. If Hogwarts has late-night talk shows, Newt is the guy with the monkey that crawls on the host’s face and makes everyone snicker. After bumping into a man with a startlingly similar briefcase, a number of Newt’s beasts break free and he must retrieve them, with the help of some unlikely companions—likely companions are no fun. Of all the beasts Newt must capture, there is one that is the most volatile, most valuable and most unpredictable, but I’ll leave it to you to find out which.
If you thought this franchise was visually interesting enough already, with its blending of steampunk and fantasy sensibilities, now a third aesthetic ingredient is added in the form of the roaring twenties. Beyond the cloche hats and the Model Ts, the decade seeps into the story, as well. There’s no better example of this than when we’re shuffled into a speakeasy, in which there’s a goblin flapper melting hearts and copious amount of “giggle water” are consumed with abandon—”giggle water” isn’t slang, by the way. The club’s owner, a goblin racketeer (Ron Perlman), might as well have “quid pro quo” tattooed across his knuckles. Imagine my delight when the visit ends in an old-fashioned police raid—with some thematically appropriate twists, of course.
This isn’t quite the British all-star game where the batting order includes Maggie Smith, Richard Harris and John Cleese. Nonetheless, the cast is a team of unique individuals, united by their talent. Eddie “Hold Me Down, There’s a Light Breeze Coming” Redmayne is perfectly cast as the mumbling, brilliant, future-hunchbacked Scamander. His aforementioned unlikely companions are comprised of two ’20s archetypes, the breathy bombshell (Alison Sudol) and the New York City native whose vocabulary includes “all-a-yas” (Dan Fogler). Screen legend, Jon Voight, makes a brief appearance, bordering on cameo, for seemingly no reason, but this is a franchise film, so he might have a future.
“Fantastic Beasts” is a lot of fun, whether it’s derived from the Harryhausen-esque creatures—whose personalities are as singular as their make-up—the kooky cast of live-action cartoon characters or the visual cocktail of magic and old America. J.K. Rowling has said that this will be the first of five films. I’m still not crazy about this “more, more, more” philosophy floating around Hollywood, but after seeing the film, I can’t say I would be opposed to a little more.
3.5 out of 5 stars