November 19, 2016
2016 is a revival of sorts for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. Just earlier this year, I got the new Harry Potter book, actually the production script of its stage version, for my birthday, which I just finished reading it this week. And now, there is a new film with a title we had first read in the first Harry Potter book "The Sorcerer's Stone". If you recall, one of the required textbooks in the Hogwarts School of Wizardry was entitled "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" written by a certain Newt Scamander.
This new film is about an adventure of the author Newt Scamander before he published his famous book. It was 1926 when Newt arrived in New York carrying his suitcase of magical creatures. One of these creatures escaped and was wreaking havoc in a bank. In his efforts to recover his wayward pet, Newt accidentally switched suitcases with that of Jacob Kowalski, a baker whose loan just got rejected. This led Newt on a big adventure getting his suitcase back as well as the other creatures Kowalski inadvertently released into the city, with the Aurors of the Magical Council of the USA hot in pursuit.
Definitely the titular fantastic beasts in all their computer-generated glory were the main attraction of this film. The first one we saw was the naughty Niffler, a platypus-like creature who loved collecting gems and shiny things and stuffed them into his pouch-like body. There was a giant rhinoceros-like creature called an Erumpent that Newt cornered in snowy and icy Central Park. The CG image was certainly huge, but its appearance was not exactly awe-inspiring. The green lock-picker Bowtruckle and the sloth-like Dougal were cute. The dragon-like Occamy and the eagle-like Thunderbird were the more spectacular creatures.
A significant side story was about Mary Lou Barebone, a lady who used orphan kids to spread her anti-witchcraft advocacy, and her creepy adopted children Creedence and Modesty. I found the extreme darkness of this plot a major downer in the storytelling which I did not really like. The whole business about the Magical Council led by their lady President Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) and chief auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) may have had elegant production and costume designs but again, the treatment by director David Yates was too dark for my liking. Another subplot about the rich and powerful Shaw family (led by Jon Voight) did not seem that essential, yet at least.
For me, the best part of the film was not a wizard or witch, but a No-Maj (that's how a Muggle is called in the US). I enjoyed the way Dan Fogler portrayed Jacob Kowalski. He was funny and charming. His chemistry with sweet mind-reading witch Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) was delightful. Eddie Redmayne's wide-eyed portrayal of kind magizoologist Newt Scamander, was very sincere. Though not bad, it tended to feel one-note after a while. Katherine Waterston was trapped in the dowdy clothes and dour demeanor of her character, the demoted auror Tina Goldstein, for most of the film. Fortunately she was given a few scenes to smile and shine.
With a script that was the debut of J.K. Rowling as screenwriter, this film was clearly setting up for more adventures for Newt in the future. In fact, word is it will be a trilogy. Aside from the wondrous wildlife, I enjoyed the references to Hogwarts and hearing those spells again, like "Alohomora" and "Accio", among others. The cameo at the end was a big surprise, if you did not know that there will be a guest appearance by a big movie star.
Though I may not have been all too effusive about this first episode, I am still curious to see where the next story will take Newt and his friends. I am hoping though that the next installment would diffuse at least some of the darkness that kept this film from being as engaging as its trailer promised. 7/10.