“Mostly, I annoy people,” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) notes wryly to his companion, a Polish-American immigrant (Dan Folger) who falls unintentionally into an underground world of witches and wizards in 1920’s Manhattan in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (based on the book by J.K. Rowling). Certainly, Dan is having quite a day, beginning when he goes to the bank to request a loan so that he can open his own bakery. Alas, being a mere factory worker, he has no collateral and as the man who sees him points out, machines can now make mass produced pastries these days, so out he goes – only to have something else grab his attention. As Dan stares in disbelief at the shaking egg that he pocketed after a brief meeting with Eddie, who leaves it behind, he manages to stammer out, “Mr. English Guy? Your egg is hatching!” And this is only the start of the adventures which take place pre-Harry Potter-era Hogwarts (obviously) in times which dark arts wizard Gellert Grindelwald is wreaking havoc. Gellert, if I have my Potter-ology correct, is Albus Dumbledore’s (now teaching at Hogwarts) former best friend/nemesis who dreamed of a master race with the chilling slogan “for the greater good.” But the duel between the two is fodder for another movie – right now, we’re firmly in America.
Eddie, whose yearly fall appearance starring in an Oscar-bait movie (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) comes around like clockwork isn’t kidding when he says that he tends to rub people the wrong way. If carrying a suitcase of perpetually trying to escape magical creatures doesn’t do it, maybe it’s the fact that he’s a walking collection of all the mannerisms – stammering, head ducking, physical clumsiness that British actors can get away with without coming across as merely goofy the way an American actor would. He first bumps into Dan – literally, and after Dan’s ill-fated interview, the two are thrown together when Eddie’s pursuit of an errant niffler (a burrowing creature with a fetish for gold) causes him to be mistaken for a thief by the bank security team. Due to an inadvertent briefcase swap, Dan is drawn further into Eddie’s world.
Currently, times look bleak for both the rights of fantastic beasts and magical children born in Muggle (non-magic) world, who are both being persecuted. Anti-magic crusader Samantha Morton extorts crowds to stamp out magic, “for the future, for our children,” while secretly abusing her own including “Squib” (non-magical) Ezra Miller. Ezra, for his part, has formed an alliance with a mysterious man who promises to help him as long as he helps find a magical child who supposedly is the answer to a prophecy. (Or something. I never quite did work out why the child (Faith Wood-Blagrove) was so central to the whole plot.) There is also a subplot about the corrupt son of a newspaperman running for Senate, as well as Johnny Depp popping up in a crucial role. But the real “stars” are the magical creatures themselves.
To aid them in their quest, Eddie and Dan hook up with a pair of witches (Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston), who shelter and feed them (and in the case of Alison, bewitch Dan), but who the guys eventually ditch by jumping into Eddie’s magical suitcase, where we’re suddenly ushered into a multi-dimensional, multi-environmental world full of the creatures. This is the part that is truly fantastic, though I also enjoyed Dan’s performance and thought he should get nominated for convincingly conveying what it’s like to wake up from an enchantment. I’ve always thought that more than one actor deserved an Academy Award nomination (not necessarily win) for their role in the Harry Potter franchise, but of course, that and “Fantastic Beasts,” have the stigma of being a “kids’ film,” although I expect it to pick up at least one non-acting nomination this year. The movie also gets journalism as a profession mostly right – something that doesn’t always happen in the movies, at least when the climax arrives and makes the “Ghostbusters'” remake’s parade of invaders look tame, the publisher notes the goings-on, and solemnly instructs, “Take pictures.”