‘Fantastic Beasts’: Chaotic, but imaginative fun for Potter fans

July 22, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Fantastic Beasts' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It was a supplemental story alongside the “Harry Potter” books, read by Hogwarts students as textbooks and released to fans with handwritten notes scribbled in the margins by Harry, Ron and Hermione.

Now, author J.K. Rowling returns to the big screen with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

Set 70 years before Harry arrived at Hogwarts, the film follows immigrant wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he lands on New York’s Ellis Island in 1926. When his suitcase is mixed up with that of an innocent Muggle baker named Jacob (Dan Fogler), Newt’s collection of “fantastic beasts” are accidentally unleashed on the Big Apple, causing much concern from a secret society of wizards.

Leading this secret society is veteran wizard Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), director of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). He’s busy trying to stop a menacing force known as the Obscurial, which has been unleashed during the mysterious absence of evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald and is now wreaking havoc on the city with a sort of invisibility cloak of lightning-fast devastation. Can Newt catch his own critters and stop the Obscurial before the city is destroyed?

Unlike the franchise’s previous installments — seven books adapted into eight films by screenwriters Steve Kloves and Michael Goldenberg — this is the first adapted into a screenplay solely by Rowling. While the author has mastered literature, she is still a newbie on the screenwriting front, and while there are no glaring mistakes, the structure becomes a bit repetitive and bogged down in Act Two.

Keeping the entire thing on the rails is British director David Yates, who took over the directing chair from the creative Chris Columbus (“Home Alone”) and the inventive Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) to helm the final four “Harry Potter” movies — “The Order of the Phoenix” (2007), “The Half Blood Prince” (2009), “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1” (2010) and “The Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (2011).

If you saw those blockbusters and enjoyed Yates’ filmmaking style, there’s a similar dark whimsy to “Fantastic Beasts.” It mostly works as a stand-alone fantasy, though knowledge of the Harry Potter universe will certainly enhance the experience. And yet, even the biggest of Potter fans will miss the coming-of-age character arcs that fed the wonder far more than adults frantically running around.

Visually, it’s a feast. If you’re an old-school viewer skeptical of CGI special effects, you might find “Beasts” chaotic, particularly as the Obscurial wreaks ultimate havoc in the climax. Still, the overall presentation is so damn imaginative that you’ll want to run out and grab yourself some Giggle Water.

Particularly fascinating are the creatures who escape Newt’s suitcase (“Gotta catch ’em all!”). The Niffler is a duckbill platypus kleptomaniac; The Bowtruckle is a Groot-like praying mantis chilling on Newt’s shoulder; and The Erumpent looks like a rhinoceros with a big, bubbly bruise on its forehead.

Of course, none of these beasts would work without the whimsical performance of Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), who’s irresistible racing from Brooklyn to Central Park trying to catch these critters. “You’ll find he is a whiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was,” only kept grounded by top witch Porpentina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston (“Inherent Vice”).

Redmayne’s rollicking spirit is counterbalanced by the more solemn forces of Colin Farrell (“Minority Report”) as the wizarding authority and Samantha Morton (“Sweet and Lowdown”) as the abusive witch hunter, who heads the so-called New Salem Philanthropic Society trying to root out wizards.

It would all become overly serious — and too dark for its own good — if not for the comic relief of Dan Fogler (“Kung Fu Panda”), who steals the show as the innocent Muggle (i.e. mortal) mixed up in the magic. The man just wants to bake. He has no idea he’s a “No-Maj,” the name for American Muggles, but he catches the eye of Porpentina’s younger sister, played by a lovely Alison Sudol (“Transparent”).

Perhaps the most clever bit of casting comes with the character of Credence Barebone. The role is played by rising star Ezra Miller, who is warming up to play the titular superhero in “The Flash” (2018) and fittingly starred across Hermione (Emma Watson) in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012).

I see you, casting director! After “Brooklyn” and “Room” (2015), Fiona Weir has got it going on.

Just don’t log onto the “Fantastic Beasts” IMDB page or you’ll ruin the film’s best casting surprise.

Shh. No spoilers here.

Clicking around the IMDB filmography, you’ll also find another cynical Hollywood impulse: Yates has already signed on to direct at least four more installments. After watching “Beasts,” I’m very skeptical there’s enough juice from a 128-page supplemental story to sustain the same prolific run as “Potter.”

In fact, a week from now, you’ll probably forget many of the specific story details just like the Muggles who get “obliviated” in a memory-wiping ritual similar to the mind erasers in “Men in Black” (1997).

But for now, let’s not worry about this prequel’s sequels. Let’s sit back and enjoy the ride with plenty of popcorn. As John Williams’ old familiar score arrives to the same “WB” logo, you’re bound to get goosebumps of excitement as this fantastical franchise takes flight once more: “Wingardium leviosa!”

Rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks among the year’s best on our Fraley Film Guide.

3-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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