Enjoy new wonders reminiscent of Harry Potter’s world

Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When the final book in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was published, after the initial excitement of reading the final chapter, fans of the boy wizard and Rowling’s magical world created were also a bit distraught: It was the end. The cynic would have said, “Oh, please. There’s way too much money involved!” Between Warner Bros, which handles the films, and the slew of publishers across the world who made mints on the books and its translations, there were, literally, tens of billions of dollars to be made. But Rowling, at least publicly, isn’t much of a cynic. She seems to love, really love, the world and characters she created, and shortly after Deathly Hallows, she announced that she would start a whole new set of films based around Newt Scamander, the author of a text book Harry and his friends read while students at the wizarding academy Hogwarts. Rowling had released the short, whimsical Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2001 to raise money for Comic Relief. The film of the same name, written by Rowling and directed by David Yates, uses Scamander’s mini encyclopedia as a way to expand the wizarding universe to the United States, to the previous century, and to investigate, tentatively and slightly, themes a bit more adult than those of Harry’s adolescent concerns.

The film takes place in New York in 1926 and begins with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) arriving by steamship with a suitcase literally bursting with magical animals he has collected during his travels. His suitcase, like various rooms and tents in the Harry Potter series, is much, much larger than it appears. When one of them escapes – a platypus-like rascal who collects shiny things, like money – the resulting chaos gets Newt arrested by local magic cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). He exposed magic to the local No-Maj, or folks who can’t do magic, while physically harming one, a wannabe baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just happened to be in the way.

Tina isn’t just being a good cop. It turns out she’s trying to get back into the good graces with the powers-that-be, including a detective named Graves (Colin Farrell) and the American wizard president (Carmen Ejogo), who demoted Tina after she got into a fight with a witch-hating No-Maj radical (Samantha Morton). Meanwhile, the city is being plagued by mysterious building collapses and explosions, which may or may not be the fault of mysterious international wizard terrorist Grindelwald. When many of Newt’s creatures escape and the attacks get worse, Newt is blamed, Tina is implicated, and fantastical adventure ensues.

The film is fun simply because it reminds us of the Harry Potter world, and in expanding that world, geographically and historically, we are treated to new wonders, some which are Rowlingesque quirky and some which are visually spectacular. The beginning of the film’s second act takes place in Newt’s suitcase, which is a sort of ramshackle wild-life sanctuary, and the creatures are as original and beautiful as anything out of Avatar or Star Wars. Our heroes are broadly drawn as characters but they are endearing: Newt is weird and brilliant and idealistic, while Tina is as ambitious as she is emotionally invested in her work. Harry, Hermione and Ron were only complex and magnetically interesting after repeated exposure. There will be five movies about Newt and Tina, so we have time to fall in love with them.

In Fantastic Beasts, I gave them the benefit of the doubt that they will become more interesting, but I found Kowalski and Tina’s squeaky flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) immediately entrancing. Oscar-winner Redmayne, whose jerky awkwardness is becoming his one-note wonder, is fine and is used well by Yates and Waterston, so brilliant in P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice, is also well used, though I wanted her to be more badass, or at least edgier. Tina’s sweetness is a symptom of the film’s flaw. While Harry Potter grew up and Rowling became a much better and more interesting writer over the years, Potter properties are still marketed to children and teenagers. Fantastic Beasts, despite being about adults and careers and adult love, is still a kids movie. It could have been darker and more interesting, but that’s not where the billions of dollars are going to come from.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directed by David Yates

Written by J.K. Rowling

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston and Colin Farrell

Rated PG-13

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A slushy, mushy wintry mix



When I told another critic at the screening of Winter’s Tale that it was adapted from a novel many consider to be one of greatest of last quarter of 20th century, I was given a blank stare. As in: Really? Are you kidding me? I don’t know this factoid because I’ve read Mark Helprin’s 1983 novel, which I honestly had never heard of before I saw advertisement for the movie. (And I like to think of myself as, if not well-read, at least aware of which great books I should have read.) I found out when I googled the movie. You certainly wouldn’t get the impression the source material was all that great from the movie, which is the first wonderfully bad, entertainingly bonkers movie I’ve seen in quite some time: Cheese masquerading as profundity, amateur-hour continuity errors, and laughably odd stunt casting.

But, you ask, was it not written, directed, and produced by Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for writing A Beautiful Mind and also wrote the great Cinderella Man? Well, yes. But this is a good time for you to remember that he also wrote Batman & Robin, Lost in Space, and I, Robot. He needs a good director to fix his screenplays, usually Ron Howard, and Goldsman certainly is not that director, let alone Ron Howard.

Here’s the story: In the winter of 1916 in New York City, Peter Lake (Colin Ferrell) is a talented, self-effacing thief running from the minions of Pearly Soames (scenery-chewing Russell Crowe), who at first seems to be a sociopathic mobster but turns out to be an actual demon. Just as Peter is about to escape from New York, his mysteriously intuitive white horse indicates that he should rob a mansion. He breaks in and discovers, befriends, and falls in love with the free-spirited, delightful, and consumptive Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay, best known for playing the similar and similarly doomed Lady Sybil on Downton Abby).

Pearly finds out about Beverly after going into a fugue state and drawing a picture of her in blood, and he tries to kidnap her in order to draw Peter out. But Peter saves Beverly on his white horse, which sprouts wings when they jump off a cliff. They walk along the frozen Hudson River until they reach the Penn’s country mansion, where Beverly’s father (William Hurt) almost instantaneously accepts a poor thief as his daughter’s suitor. I guess his reasoning is: She’s dying. Does it matter?

For some mystical reason, Pearly can’t leave New York City to go after Peter unless he asks permission of Lucifer. As in the Devil. Who is played by a lazy Will Smith. Since Smith shows up pretty early, this is not a spoiler, but the shock of seeing him in this already oddball movie caused the screening audience to burst out in laughter. Other totally bizarre cast members include Kevin Duran, Norm Lewis, Graham Greene (playing, really, another wise Indian), and Oscar winners Jennifer Connolly and, most absurdly, Eva Marie Saint. Saint’s character is eight in 1916 but inexplicably still alive and working as a publishing company’s CEO in 2014, when the film’s third act takes place. Peter is also still alive, but he’s the same age as he was in 1916, still making Pearly very angry, and still friends with that white horse. Because magic.

Thematically, the film is saying something about love, destiny, selflessness, miracles, and the balance between good and evil, but even if it’s clear in Helprin’s book, Goldsman turns it all into a muddle of clichéd platitudes and simplistic swooning. His use of the green screen effects are messy and error-ridden, he uses the score to announce every emotion, and his editing is so ham-fisted that he can’t even manipulate a tear during the sad-sappy death scenes. Worse, in the one scene that Russell Crowe bears his impressive chest, it’s shaved clean. I blame Goldsman for that, too.

Winter’s Tale
Written and Directed by Akiva Goldsman
Starring Colin Ferrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, and Russell Crowe
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex