One might consider this droll and mischievous magic thriller akin to "Men in
Black" but, coming from the ever fertile mind and imagination of Ms JK
Rowlings of Harry Potter fame and fortune, it's all too clear that she's the
master of her own distinctive corner of hilarious anthropomorphism. The
wizardry, wands, moving newspaper illustrations, a thieving animal and a worn
leather suitcase open a portal to a world of high eccentricity.
Carrying that piece of luggage onto the New York docks in 1926 is englishman
Newt Scamander ("Salamander" + "Scandal" + "Scoundrel," etc.), a Ministry
of Magic employee. Making his way through the crowd toward customs it's
clear he's upset with something inside the suitcase which is acting up,
unlocking the clasp and wanting out. But when the customs agent asks to see
the contents, probably because of the fine gentleman's tendency to look away
when spoken to (as a symptom of his introverted nature or... his act
of charming bashfulness), he pushes the agent's suspicion buttons. The moment
of suspense is quelled when all to be found in the suitcase is calm. Just
your ordinary personal items. Even a niffler knows when it's time to
Accepted into the country, Newt is again winding his way through the dock crowd
when his eyes meet those of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton, "Minority
Report") who, as the head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society,
treats him to a diatribe about witches and wizards as real and dangerous. She
doesn't know the half of the activist's credentials but diverts him long
enough for the niffler, a rabbit-sized critter with a platypus snout to
finally makes its escape from the suitcase and go foraging for bright, shiny
As Newt goes after it, knowing the havoc the critter will set into motion
with its thirst for jewelry, he runs into amiable wannabe baker Jacob
Kowalski (Dan Fogler, "Barely Lethal") who happens to have a suitcase
identical to his own. The encounter results in an accidental exchange with
Kowalski not knowing what he's about to unleash. As for Scamander, he's now
the proud possessor of a load of delicious looking donuts Kowalski needs as
collateral for a bank loan in order to start a bakery.
The two form a buddyship while the screen fills with characters dark and
evil, powerful and beauteous, hostile and extremely friendly. Proving the
last two points is mostly gentle security officer Tina Goldstein (Katherine
Waterston) who arrests the unregistered wizard and takes him to the Magical
Congress of the USA (MACUSA) where she has been downgraded for an offense and
is trying to regain her former status as an Auror.
In this she's answerable to President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and
the very powerful Director of the Magical Security, Percival Graves
(Colin Farrell), who dismiss the case. She winds up with as much control over
Newt as he'll abide, the relationship downgraded to something closer to a
friendship. She helps her new buddy search for his luggage but it's the
beasts that the unaware Jacob has inadvertently released that leads to the
exchange. By now, Newt perceives the extent of "no-maj" sentiment astir in
Manhattan, fueled by Picquery, by the (unseen until near the end) dark
wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) (shades of Lord Voldemort!), Shaw
(Jon Voight) and Graves.
Tina takes Newt and Jacob to the sanctuary of her home where she introduces
them to her ravishing sister Queenie Goldstein (Allison Sudol), an
Age-of-Aquarious beauty with an outgoing personality, an ability to read
minds, and a shine for Jacob.
Jacob, now with his collateral returned to him, tries for the loan but it
turns out that the deliciousness of the buns has no bearing on the loan
officer's willingness to come forth with the money.
The effects called for in Rowling's script puts many of the CGI tricks into
director David Yates' hands, being a spinoff of the Potter series. The
artists have the advantage of previously designed effects and style for this
new application. an opening salvo of a new series.
The level of craft artistry is equally elite with Director of Photography
Philippe Rouselot perhaps in the best position this year to win his second
Oscar for his cinematography. The consistency of his lighting style and
composition, blended with the CGI effects, is a major conponent of the
creative exuberance and visual excellence of his work, This goes, as well, to
the casting, production design, art direction, costumes and makeup, with
music by James Newton Howard: geniuses all.
There's no doubting that Redmayne has made his mark with his malleable
boyishness and raffish shock of hair after "The Danish Girl" and "The Theory
of Everything" wherein he simulated physicist Steven Hawking. He's in the
zone of Hollywood endearment and will likely have as much work as he cares
to do for some time to come. Which doesn't preclude those who might find him
a bit much, with the submissive eyes and occasional bent over timidity of his
Rowlings continues to show what she's got in her, Post-Potter. After a
standalone novel, several excellent crime novels in the Cormoran Strike
series written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, and the book from which
this movie is adapted, this is also screenwriting debut. Yes, folks,
with her way of mixing humor with pathos, creative originality, mastery of
plot construction, command of pacing and every other technicality of writing,
she dreamed it up and wrote every bit.
Anyone who has enjoyed her inexhaustible capacity for invention should
consider this must-see material, although it's a relatively minor work
against the dramatic scale and dark complexity that was Hogwarts. One feels a
lack of appreciation for the "less is more" credo although, in that, she's
far from alone.
~~ Jules Brenner