In "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," Colin Farrell finally gets the wand he’s been coveting since the start of the Harry Potter era. A magical new film set in Prohibition New York, it’s proof there’s life after (or should that be before?) the bespectacled boy wizard that made J.K. Rowling famous. Cahir O'Doherty offers his take on the first film to see this Thanksgiving season.
The first thing you’ll want to know is will "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," opening this week, be any good? I’m delighted to say the answer is an emphatic yes. It’s a complete triumph.
The script, based on a short story by the famed Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, offers adventure, comedy, romance and terror in a film that seems tilted toward slightly older, wiser fans of the popular wizarding genre.
Set in 1926, about the mid-point of the Prohibition era, the story begins with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York with a suitcase full of magical beasts.
As played by Redmayne, Scamander is a nervy outcast, disliked by No-Maj’s (the wizarding world’s term for humans without magical abilities) and wizards alike.
He’s exactly the kind of outsider that Rowling often warms to and she’s really outdone herself with this one, creating a man who is half Doctor Who and half noble lion with a thorn in his paw.
Right away we can see that Scamander is a kind man with an unexpectedly wicked sense of humor. Redmayne’s downcast eyes also show us there is heartache buried underneath that buttoned-down English exterior.
I’m going to be sacrilegious here and just say that about halfway through this film you’ll probably like Scamander even more than Rowling’s most famous creation, Harry Potter.
Yes, Potter fans, I really said that! When Scamander walks, he walks with a halting step, very possibly from a major battle injury, so you sense he has some interesting mileage on his clock.
Scamander says what he means, helps every man, woman and beast he can, but he’s also smart and funny and arrestingly weird, a real departure from poor tormented Harry and Privet Drive, so much so that you just can’t help but like him.
Within hours of his arrival in America half of his precious beasts escape their magical confines, threatening to reveal the existence of the wizarding community to the whole of New York City (instead of hiding in plain sight the way magical beings are used to).
Scamander knows better than anyone that the creatures he adores and protects are misunderstood and feared, even by his fellow wizards who can’t understand his strange devotion to them, so he’s alarmed when the wizarding equivalent of the FBI, the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), get these creatures in their sights with plans to capture or kill them.
Strange things have been happening for months in New York and the No-Maj population (that’s us) is starting to get anxious about it. Into this panicky powder keg comes the mysterious Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell), the director of magical security at MACUSA whose intentions are increasingly hard to decipher.
Farrell plays his wizard role with such brio you can tell he’s having the time of his life. In his mad-magician-meets-Dracula cape he’s the film’s most captivating onscreen presence, and although we learn that he works for the magical authorities, we quickly discover he has his own hidden agenda, one he’s been keeping secret from almost everyone.
Farrell’s character represents the most interesting departure from wizarding as usual that we have ever seen in the Potter universe. I don’t want to spoil the film so I’ll just say this: there is a scene that could count among the most erotic of his film career, all the more so for its complete surprise. So what made Farrell come on board the Potter franchise?
“I always had Potter envy and was a bit annoyed that the phone never rang,” he told the press recently. “I had loved all the Potter films and I’ve seen this slew of incredible cast members that would come in and make these indelible parts… their own.”
In particular Farrell thought of the Irish contribution to the wizarding series and wanted to make his own mark.
“A couple of countrymen of mine, like Richard Harris, who originated the Dumbledore role, and Brendan Gleeson, who was Mad-Eye Moody, and everyone from David Thewlis to Maggie Smith to Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh,” he added.
“I don’t know any of them. I’m just fans of their work. So when I heard that this film was being made, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Farrell represents the long arm of the magical law in the film, but it also looks like he has a few surprises stored under his dramatic black and white cape, which turns out to be a bit of an understatement.
What he also brings to his character, for the first time in the Potter pantheon, is some genuine menace. We can tell from the first moment how powerful he is. We don’t have long to wait to discover how dangerous he can be.
Does Graves have some unknown connection to dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who is on the run after terrorizing half of Europe? Or is he connected to the witch-hunting sect known as the Second Salemers, a fanatical religious group who suspect that witches and wizards have returned to blight humanity’s footsteps?
What makes "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" so different from the Potter books and films is that they are based on one standalone Potter related tale from 2001, not from one of the multimillion copy bestsellers the world has already read.
Author Rowling also had 100 percent creative control over the script, which means that what we see on screen is exactly as she wrote it. This makes for a more total immersion in her world, and a more satisfying storytelling experience (the Potter films would have likewise benefited).
But critics and cinema-goers alike will be surprised, over and over, by the sheer scale of the storytelling here, and for once they will hardly know what to expect.
One of the delights of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is that it recreates New York in the middle of the roaring twenties, when skyscrapers are reaching heavenward for the first time and on the streets, intolerance is a global and growing phenomenon.
There are perils gathering everywhere. A new campaign is being waged by a group that calls itself the Second Salemers, who target witches and wizards who they believe have returned to America after a long absence and have to be wiped out.
So Rowling is clearly setting up a long battle between the forces of tolerance and intolerance, a storyline that’s as sadly relevant to our own time as it is to 1926. What I can promise you is that this one will give you someone decent and kind to cheer for, reminding what a real hero actually looks like.
In this day and age that is a kind of magic in itself. Don’t miss it.