The last place you’d expect to find the first anti-Trump blockbuster of the Donald’s presidency is a Harry Potter-related prequel. But here it is, folks, a not-so-innocuous family film – from J.K. Rowling, in origin-story mode – about building a wall, literal and metaphoric, to keep out scary things people don’t understand. The immigrants in this case are fantastic beasts who’ve escaped the enchanted suitcase of expelled Hogwarts magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and are now running wild in New York City, circa 1926. And we’re off with a this-just-in urgency.
Rowling has long been a champion of outsiders facing intolerance, segregation and demonization. The xenophobic hate-mongers Newt encounters when his ship arrives in the U.S. after a creature-collecting global tour won’t be unfamiliar to 2016 moviegoers. So even when the author, in her first screenplay, gets bogged down in exposition while introducing a whole new world of characters, her unexpectedly moving subtext carries the day.
David Yates, who directed that last four Potter films, wrangles the large cast as Newt teams up with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (i.e. a non-wizard or Muggle) and magic investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (the appealing Alison Sudol). Together they try to protect Newt’s beasts from wizard cop Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), his unwilling acolyte Credence (Ezra Miller, in the film’s most memorable and strangely moving performance) and the dark master Gellert Grindelwald, unseen until the end – and about whom the less said the better.
The real stars here are the beasts, supposedly ugly, weird and dangerous, but paragons of FX creativity in service of genuine ideas. You’ll crush on the naughty, duckbilled Niffler and a tree-stem-sized Bowtruckle named Pickett. Kids will find them cuties, for sure. But Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, named for Newt’s textbook that Harry P. will later study at Hogwarts, is best at capturing a world out of balance and an unease that’s as timely as today’s tweets.