Two films this month have restored my faith that it’s actually possible to make obscenely expensive, special-effects-stuffed blockbusters that are actually good.
Both are lead by unconventional British actors who would look more at home at a library (or comic-book store) than on Muscle Beach.
The first, of course is Doctor Strange, the Marvel box-office marvel led by lanky Sherlock smartypants Benedict Cumberbatch.
As enjoyable as it is, that superhero picture is surpassed in every way by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an enchanting new entry in the J.K. Rowling cinematic universe starring equally lanky Eddie Redmayne.
For one thing, Fantastic Beasts actually has a story.
There’s even an honest-to-goodness subtext.
It had better be good: Fantastic Beasts, which follows eight profitable Harry Potter films, was made for a reported budget of $225 million.
Scripted by Rowling and directed by David Yates, who helmed the final four Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts is a spin-off inspired by one of Harry's textbooks, an idiosyncratic guide to magical animals purportedly written by one Newt Scamander.
The film is an origin story of sorts, explaining how the talented globetrotting wizard came to write his book.
And how was that?
By coming to America, of course.
Set during the 1920s, Fantastic Beasts opens with Newt’s arrival in New York. The Oscar-winning Redmayne plays him to perfection as an awkward, maladroit young wizard who is far more comfortable around animals than people.
Expelled from Hogwarts, he has been a social outcast who travels the globe in search of magical creatures, which he captures and keeps in his suitcase – an awesome magical device that encloses a massive nature preserve.
For the most part, Newt has been left alone.
That changes when some of his pets escape the case.
Yates and Rowling, whose film is propelled by a potent mix of CGI and lyrical romanticism, have buckets of fun with these magical beings. It’s clear they delight in their creations.
One of Newt’s pals is a small, cute, and furry platypuslike dude that is fascinated by things that shine. A terrific early scene in a bank has it darting around stealing coins, rings, necklaces, and pocket watches.
Another beast, a tiny green stick insect that lives in Newt’s jacket pocket, can pick locks and comes in handy when Newt gets stuck in the bank’s vault.
Fantastic Beasts has two parallel story lines. In the first, Newt chases down his escaped beasts with help of a motley crew: a working class no-maj (the American word for a Muggle), wonderfully portrayed by Dan Fogler (Barely Lethal), and two comely female wizards, Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).
The three actors are part of a marvelous ensemble cast that also includes Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo, and Johnny Depp.
The second, darker story is about a series of deadly attacks by an evil magical entity that have all but shut down New York.
Newt is sucked into the struggle when he’s arrested by security officers from the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) as the wizard responsible for the terror attacks.
His crime, we find out, comes with the death penalty.
Terror attacks? Security forces? The death penalty?
For better or worse, Fantastic Beasts has a whopper of a subtext, a blanket critique of American society that continuously rises up from every nook and cranny of the story.
Rowling paints a disturbing, even ugly, picture of America as a violent cauldron of repression and xenophobia ruled by paranoia and fear. It’s the era of Prohibition, and people are beset on all sides by self-appointed guardians of morality and patriotism.
This may be a period piece, Rowling suggests, but it’s really about life in the age of the war on terror, the war on illegal immigration, the war on drugs – and, at least as Rowling sees it, the war on the poor. The New York we see here is controlled by malevolent robber barons and greedy, narcissistic politicians.
Yates and Rowling skillfully weave their bleak – and blunt-edged – message into the fabric of the story. It might be wildly out of place in a fantasy aimed at tweens, but it’s a welcome change from the usual vapid blockbuster.