[Screen It]


(2016) (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston) (PG-13)

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Fantasy: A 1920s era wizard who collects fantastic creatures must contend with losing some of those while visiting New York City that's besieged by other strange events that have the populace worried.
It's 1926 and Newt Scamander (EDDIE REDMAYNE) is a wizard who's been traveling the world collecting fantastic creatures he desires to rescue, nurture and protect, all to educate other wizards about such beasts. He's arrived in New York City in hopes of capturing more of them, but strange goings-on there have Mary Lou Barebone (SAMANTHA MORTON) and her Second Salemers -- including teenager Credence (EZRA MILLER) and the younger Modesty (FAITH WOOD-BLAGROVE) -- believing the city is besieged with witches.

That has the local wizards -- who co-exist with the rest of the populace but keep their powers hidden from them -- concerned that the non-wizards (known as Muggles where Newt comes from but called No-Majs in the States) will soon learn of their existence and things will go downhill from there. Among those wizards is Percival Graves (COLIN FARRELL) of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) who's sought out the help of Credence to find a secret child wizard he believes controls a powerful vortex of repression and anger known as an obscurus. That's been damaging parts of the city, much to the concern of newspaper magnate Henry Shaw, Sr. (JON VOIGHT) and his politician son, Henry Shaw, Jr. (JOSH COWDERY).

Another wizard who was once part of Percival's investigatory team, Tina Goldstein (KATHERINE WATERSTON), believes that Newt's escaped beasts might be to blame and thus brings him in, although her beliefs are quickly dismissed by the rest of her kind, including their leader, Seraphina (CARMEN EJOGO). It doesn't help that a local No-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (DAN FOGLER), has witnessed the effects of such creatures on the loose, and the wizards want his memory wiped. But Newt needs his knowledge of the city to help find them, and they're soon joined by Tina's sister, Queenie (ALISON SUDOL), a mind-reader who's instantly smitten with Jacob and vice-versa.

Hoping for some help from gangster goblin Gnarlak (RON PERLMAN), Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob set out to recapture his escaped creatures, all while Percival's attempts to find the child who controls the obscurus puts them, the other wizards and the rest of New York City in harm's way.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
It's been reported that more than 450 million copies of the seven literary installments of author J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series have been sold worldwide. The subsequent eight movies ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was split into two films) grossed north of $7 billion at the worldwide box office (in unadjusted dollars). Accordingly, it's not that surprising that the releasing studio, Warner Bros., was hoping for and then happy to hear that the novelist was willing to return to the wizard well once again.

Yet, rather than take up where the series left off, or write her tale like before as a novel first, Rowling has opted to write the screenplay for a prequel set long before young Mr. Potter first walked the halls of Hogwarts. While young fans of the initial series and books might be disappointed to learn that Harry and company are nowhere to be found in this film, there are enough connections, similar material and familiar tonal and plot qualities that "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them" should appeal to Potter fanatics around the globe.

The film -- directed by David Yates who previously helmed 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1," and 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" -- is set in the 1920s where wizards exist, apparently worldwide. One of them is Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne doing his somewhat standard awkward and fumbling character bit yet again) who was kicked out of Hogwarts, although his eventual tome based on this film's events (and of the same name) eventually became a textbook read by Potter at the school decades later).

He's arrived in New York City with just a briefcase in hand, although it's a magical one that contains, sort of, some of the titular creatures that end up unleashed on Manhattan due to a mix-up with a similar briefcase carried by a muggle (known in the U.S. as No-Majs) who's hoping to leave his canning factory job to become a baker. That career change for Jacob Kowalski (an uber winning Dan Fogler), is briefly interrupted -- at least for most of the film's slightly longer than two-hour running time -- as he ends up tagging along as Newt tries to capture the literally and figuratively slippery beasts that are now on the loose.

That sort of gives the flick a "Jumanji" feel (at least in terms of critters running amok), but Rowling has other plot workings and themes in mind. While a young wizard, Tina (Katherine Waterston), brings Newt to the wizard authorities in beliefs that his animals are the cause of recent, unusual damage in the city, one particular higher-up in the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) -- Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) -- is certain that's caused by an obscurus. That's the end result of when a young wizard attempts to hide and repress their magic, all of which creates a vortex of anger, shame and other negative emotions that can crack open streets, overturn cars and damage buildings.

He's enlisted the aid of an older teen (Ezra Miller) to help find that secret child, who we initially believe is likely his younger adopted sister (Faith Wood-Blagrove). She, like him, lives with his anti-witch crusader mother (Samantha Morton) of the Second Salemers group (as in the Salem Witch Trials). That hatred toward those who possess unique powers (something highlighted in the film's opening that features related newspaper headlines that, as in the "Potter" films, come along with animated panels) and the need for those to lead secret lives also gives the flick something of an "X-Men" vibe, particularly when Farrell's character shows displeasure toward regular folk getting more regard than wizards.

Accordingly, while Newt tries to recapture his various fantastic creatures, he also sets out to find the kid behind the obscurus, knowing the all-too-fatal repercussions of such self-repression. He's aided by Jacob, Tina and that woman's sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol playing a mind reader who looks and feels as if she's been lifted straight out of the flapper era). Sudol and Fogler end up stealing the limelight from the more significant characters played by Redmayne and Waterston, mainly because we know next to nothing about the latter two. Perhaps more will be revealed in one or more of the next four (yes, count 'em, four) installments of this series, but as it stands, it's far more enjoyable and interesting watching the supporting characters than the leads, especially as a flirtatious, potential romance blossoms between the unlikely pair.

It doesn't help that far too much of the flick seems to be going for razzle-dazzle (in terms of the special effects deployed to feature the unleashed animals as well as the whirling dervish destruction) than in creating and capturing the true magic that made the "Potter" flicks so engrossing (and a subplot featuring Jon Voight as a powerful newspaper magnate with two adult sons of different temperaments and ambitions seems like an introductory afterthought). Little bits and moments of that are present (and entertaining), but I would have liked more of that.

Yes, I understand what Rowling and company are going for (and that they needed to do) something fairly different while also holding onto ties and similarities to the earlier flicks, and the film does work well enough to be a standalone offering. But it certainly feels at various times that there's far more to this new take on the world of wizards than we're offered here. Decent enough as the introductory chapter to what's hopefully something a bit more engaging, captivating and magical, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 15, 2016 / Posted November 18, 2016

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