“Where d’you get your ideas from, Mr. Kowalski?” asks a curious bakery customer, admiring a creative display of delicately-crafted pastries. “I don’t know. I don’t know. They just come.” Truth is, the former canning factory worker turned pastry chef models his fantastic creations on the magical creatures he encountered after bumping into one Newt Scamander while seeking a loan at the bank—nifflers and erumpents and murtlaps, oh my!
The same question—where d’you get your ideas from?—might well be asked of J. K. Rowling.
In 2001, about halfway through writing her Harry Potter saga-thon, Rowling published Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a fictitious textbook said to have been written by Scamander. It’s also on the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’s required reading list—Harry first refers to the book in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when he and Hagrid are en route to Diagon Alley for some back-to-school shopping. After the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter franchise, Rowling has now written an original screenplay based on the characters and the fantastic beasts in Newt’s illustrated tome, which also includes bowtruckles, mooncalves, demiguises, occamies, billywigs, and graphorns.
I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe she needed a coupla extra mill. to pay the lawn service that month….
While Fantastic Beasts inhabits the same vibrant world as Harry Potter, it’s its own animal, fantastically so. There are witches and wizards, goblins and house elves, squibs and no-majs (the American equivalent of muggles; the film takes place in 1926 New York), as well as references to Hogwarts and Dumbledore and all manner of Potter-morés. It’s fantastic looking, fully realized, and thoroughly absorbing.
Plot-wise, Brit wizard and researcher Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, effectively affected) arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase fit to bursting with illegal imports, the fantastic beasts of the title. They’re being destroyed back home in Old Blighty and he plans to set a large one, a thunderbird, free in Arizona. Sooner than you can say What’s Up, Doc?, his case gets accidentally switched with Jacob Kowalski’s similar valise filled with flakey patisseries and the chase is on! Jacob is played by Dan Fogler and both are wonderful. Rounding out our protagonists are an over-invested investigator, Tina (Kathleen Waterston), and her lovely bohemian sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), giving us a charming quartet to root for.
Rowling concocts such a complete and vibrant world, with family trees that go back decades, that she’ll never be at a loss for material (Fantastic Beasts already has two sequels in the pipeline). Potter regular David Yates directs, conjuring up a magical blend of action and humor supported by impressive fantasy sequences. In its darker, more malevolent passages, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller are all stellar.
With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s as if one franchise has morphed into another without skipping a beat. My expectations were exponentially surpassed by this first installment, a real bolt from the blue. Here’s hoping 2018’s follow-up is even more fantastic.
(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth