Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted on November 17, 2016 at 5:56 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy peril and violence, some disturbing images and scary creatures
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: November 18, 2016
Date Released to DVD: March 27, 2017 ASIN: B01LTHOAGM
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers
Copyright 2016 Warner Brothers

It is so good to be back in the Potterverse again.

This first of an expected five film series is true to the spirit of the world of Harry Potter; indeed, it is the first film with a screenplay from J.K. Rowling herself. But it departs from the Potter films in significant ways: it is the first story to be set in the past and the first to be set outside the UK. It takes place in 1920’s New York City.

It is also the first to center on adult characters, though a teenager and a child have featured roles. It has the best of both the familiar and the new, thanks to the experienced eye of director David Yates, who also directed the last four Potter films) and the score from James Newton Howard, echoing the Potter film’s theme.

Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Danish Girl”) plays Newt Scamander, a shy wizard who arrives on Ellis Island with a briefcase that has some thrilling magical attributes. There’s a handy switch to make its contents muggle-worthy (though, as he will learn, in the US muggles are referred to as “no-majs,” pronounced no-maszh). It can contain many different kinds of fantastic beasts. And it is a portal to a sort of animal sanctuary Newt maintains for his beloved creatures, all of which will escape at least once to create chaos or save the day, sometimes both at once.

He arrives just as a group called Second Salem vows to eliminate anyone performing magic. The leader is a fervently fanatic woman named Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), who abuses her adopted children, especially her teenage son Credence (Ezra Miller, soon to be DC’s Flash on the big screen).

So MCUSA (pronounced mc-kusa), the Magical Congress of the United States of America, led by Seraphina Pickery (Carmen Ejogo) is especially concerned about doing anything that would bring them to the attention of the no-majs in any way, much less make them think that the wizards and witches are dangerous. And a rogue wizard named Grindelwald has been creating mayhem in both the wizard and muggle worlds.

Newt meets a no-maj, an amiable would-be baker named Jake Kowalski (a warm-hearted performance from Tony winner Dan Fogler) carrying a very similar-looking briefcase just as one of the fantastic beasts escapes from his own. The creature, who looks a bit like a duck-billed platypus, has an inconvenient habit of grabbing anything shiny or sparkly. By the time Newt has retrieved him, Jake has seen too much and is about to have his memory wiped when a variety of other mix-ups and adventures take him deeper into the world of magic. Soon, Jake and Newt team up, aided by a disgraced MCUSA investigator named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston of “Inherent Vice”) and her mind-reading sister, Queenie (charmingly magnetic Alison Sudol, channeling Carole Lombard).

Newt is an utterly engaging character, a bit shy and tentative, but somehow we are not surprised to learn that he was expelled from Hogwarts — or that it was over the objection of a young faculty member named Dumbledore. As with all of the Potterverse films, the production design is enchanting, even the no-mag areas. The old-time New York settings, including a variation on a speakeasy, are gorgeously realized, with a depth of imaginative detail that makes us want to hit a pause button. The creatures range from grotesque to magnificent, and Newt’s constant affection for them all (like Hagrid) is endearing. The big confrontation has some real emotional heft, and Rowling keeps one of her best surprises to the end.

When is the next chapter coming? I’m ready! At least, after I watch this one a few more times.

Parents should know that this film includes extended fantasy peril, action, and violence, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images and scary creatures, and brief bodily function humor.

Family discussion: Which is your favorite creature? Why does Newt think that people find him annoying?

If you like this, try: the Harry Potter books and movies and “Labyrinth”

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