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'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' review: Harry Potter prequel is spellbinding, dazzling

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

Entertainment Review

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

4 stars

  • Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Jon Voight
  • Directed by: David Yates
  • Written by: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest wizards-and-demons fantasy conjured by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. That fact alone guarantees attention, especially because Rowling is now the screenwriter and Beasts comes directly to the screen, not from a best-selling series of novels.

The great news is that this film — the first of five planned for the Fantastic Beasts franchise — begins at a higher level than the first of the eight Harry Potter movies did. While it falters and even bogs down at moments in the storytelling, Beasts is a dazzling spectacle overall and more often spellbinding than not.

Beasts — which stands as a Potter prequel which launches in New York City in 1926 — is also more sophisticated than the first Potter. It is already more mature in its subject matter and its target audience. And comes at us forcefully, with a lot darker subtext to the story, if still managing moments of utter whimsy.

The core group of actors are all adults already, too, so we do not have to grow up with them on-screen as we did with Daniel Radcliffe and his co-stars in Potter. The performances in Beasts are instantly impressive across the board, from Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne as the eccentric hero-wizard Newt Scamander to strong support players such as Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as sister witches, Dan Fogler as a New York baker, Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller as anti-wizarding campaigners, Ron Perlman as a goblin gangster, Colin Farrell as the mysterious head of security for Carmen Ejogo’s American association of wizards, Jon Voight as a U.S. senator who wars against wizards and Johnny Depp in a critical cameo role.

Even the origins of the story stand in stark contrast to the Potter films, which were adapted from Rowling’s novels by others, primarily by the Texas screenwriter Steve Kloves. This time around, Rowling debuted as a screenwriter, was teamed with Kloves to muscle up her first draft, and then conjured this early 20th century fantasy world from her imagination. The title and main character of Scamander both come from one of Harry Potter’s textbooks at Hogwarts, but that Beasts book was Scamander’s zoological report on the beasts he so loves, and not a narrative.

That means we do not know before going in what happens in Fantastic Beasts, nor what happens after the climactic surprise ending of this first instalment. Rowling sets up this first Beasts story, and its characters, with drama and purpose. She worked with a strong Potter-savvy filmmaking team, including English producer David Heyman, English director David Yates (who was at the helm of the final four of eight Potter films) and production designer Stuart Craig.

The best segments in Fantastic Beasts involve Redmayne’s Scamander and his menagerie of beasts. Those creatures range from an impish platypus-like animal to a giant eagle-like bird with awesome powers. Redmayne plays his English wizard as socially awkward and occasionally annoying, especially when he arrives in the U.S. on a mission. Redmayne angles his body in deference to others, and often averts his eyes. He is an unusual “hero” and more like a wounded beast himself.

Also numbering among the best sequences are Scamander’s interactions with Fogler, as a No-Maj citizen (the American equivalent of a Muggle), and Waterston, whose funky witch Tina establishes a nice frisson with Scamander after she gets over thinking he is a criminal.

Throughout, Yates and his collaborators present this as fantastic spectacle, because a wizarding world calls for nothing less. The digital special effects, and the film itself, only bog down during extended battle scenes when all heck breaks loose. We already know that, in today’s filmmaking universe, directors can do anything. It gets repetitive if the story does not continue to move along, and battle scenes are the worst offenders in effects-laden movies.

But I still thrilled with the power of Rowling’s world, and the idiosyncratic touches she provides by making Redmayne’s character so off-kilter and therefore so interesting. Eccentricity is a strength; Newt Scamander is confirmed as the protagonist of all five Beasts films; and new adventures beckon us.