While Harry Potter
films took us to an exotic magical world brimming with wonders and enchantment in every nook and corner, Fantastic Beasts imports the otherworldly to the sober real world, setting them together. And the obvious friction between the two worlds that is bound to ensue provides the plot - with a bold political overtone taking a dig at the intolerance for the immigrants that is stirring the US at the moment.
It's the '20s America (decades before Potter), passionately sceptic of wizards and witches, and magic is already taboo. Pacts are in place to impose stringent restrictions on the exposure of the magical world, but a strange and mysterious dark force is prowling around in the streets of New York. The dark Lord Gindelwald has gone missing, evoking even more unrest among the magical community, especially the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Into this land of tumult, steps Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), with his mysterious briefcase which is what this film is all about.
Newt's briefcase is a storehouse of wonders, and houses magical creatures that should not be let loose at any cost, not because they are dangerous but because men are. The creatures range from a puckish yet charming duck-billed platypus called Niffler, a giant thunderbird, a dragon-like occamy that grows and shrinks to fit the space around it, and a rhino-like beast called Erumpent. Cutest of them all is a twig-like tiny creature that not only is so cuddly but also dares in key moments.
While visual effects have proved themselves to be more than capable in imparting character to animals in recent films like Jungle Book
, that's not what these beasts are for here. They are wild and instinctive, and are completely unaware of the dangers they pose and face. They need Newt as much as this film needs them, but constantly try to break away from the briefcase, much to Newt's dismay.
Newt is a quirky and eccentric nerd who is constantly distracted by his naughty little friends that manage to escape his briefcase whenever they get a chance. With a hairstyle at its disarrayed best, a frail frame and a limp-like walk, Redmayne gives us an unconventional protagonist who admits he annoys people. Though his quirks do not make him very likeable, the creatures that he surrounds himself with redeem him. So your emotional investment is stolen by Jacob Kowalski, the easiest likeable character, played with an impeccable earnestness by Dan Fogler.
Jacob, a wannabe baker, is your surrogate for a while, until he realises he is not dreaming anymore and that all the magic around him is real. Katherine Waterston plays Tina Goldstein, a former auror at MACUSA, who is bent on turning Newt in for his recklessness that annoys her. Her sister is Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), who can't resist the temptation of reading people's minds. She is all eyes for Jacob, and Sudol plays Queenie with an aptly pretentious persistent glee.
Some of the creatures manage to break free from the briefcase at the wrong time, when a mysterious and murderous dark force is wreaking havoc, and MACUSA's Percival Graves (Colin Farell) mistakes Newt to be the cause. Now Newt and his friends have to catch the creatures before the bigoted humans can harm them under the pretence of protecting themselves.
The plot is much more stuffed than this, and involves several threads and sub-plots that will probably make more sense in the sequels. Despite that, the overly dense plot cleverly leaves enough room for the film's simplistic central theme.
However the sub-plots are effectively utilised for the political commentary the film is very keen on. Percival mentors a suspiciously introvert Credence Barebone, a victim of child abuse, and harbours more than a dangerous secret. His authoritarian and puritanical mother (Samantha Morton) prohibits magic, and Credence's repression is the film's allude to the current times, and is indicative of the film's liberal overtone.
The visuals in the Potter films always leaned towards a self-aware ostentiousness and preferred to be dreamy like rather than hyper real. As the sequels gradually veered into darkness, the colour palette adapted gothic themes. David Yates, who directed the final Potter films
, seems intent on the same feat again as this film dives into a darker tone towards the end, and the sequel is bound to inherit it. Rowling's exceptional writing that always drips with imagination and the spectacular visuals surely will shoulder the thematic burdens.
Potter titbits pop up here and there, like the mention of Dumbledore, Lestranges etc., and more loyal fans will spot even more. Though the wand-wars are quite few, fans will relish them. It's no secret now that Johnny Depp has a cameo in this film. And given how he sets fire to the screen even in the very few seconds he appears, the sequels are bound to be even more entertaining.