The Fantastic Animals, a spin-off that takes place long before the adventures of the books, describes an early 20th century New York City faced with a magical threat, much like a powerful, invisible creature that destroys everything in its path, from buildings to streets. At the same time, the shy, young English wizard expert in magical animals, Norbert Dragonneau (played by Eddie Redmayne, Oscar winner for Best Actor for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in A Wonderful Story of Time), arrives in town with his bottomless suitcase in which more than one creature seems to be hiding. By an unfortunate coincidence, his baggage will be exchanged with that of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a “non-mage”, a politically correct form of calling Moldovan in the United States. This is problematic as in this country the magical world and the world of the non-magicians live completely separate. The law imposes that any supernatural interaction between a sorcerer and a normal person must conclude with a forgetting spell, the famous amnesia spell. The witch authorities are indeed afraid of the consequences of their exposure to the world, the worst-case scenario being, no pun intended, a witch hunt or even a war.
The entire narrative structure will be based on the tension that exists between these two communities… And also on the fact that part of the Suitcase Bestiary escaped to New York. Young Norbert, unaccustomed to being discreet when trying to catch a creature that can sometimes be ten times his size, will discover this at his expense when he is challenged by the young and feisty Inspector Porpentina Goldstein (or “Tina”, played by Katherine Waterston). Weighed down by her hierarchy too busy dealing with the chaos already present in the city, she finds herself obliged to hide Norbert and Jacob at home, where they will meet her sister with a lunar character, Queenie (Alison Sudol).
This unlikely quartet is the central core of the film. Each in their own way, they exude a particular charisma and sensitivity, which is rare enough to be noted in this kind of blockbuster. Norbert’s shyness and obsessions, which are almost autistic, are perfectly explained by the love he has for his strange creatures, which makes him particularly endearing. Jacob is permanently perplexed and often the burlesque victim of Norbert’s nonchalance, who doesn’t always care what his animals may do to him. Jacob, however, shows a hilarious detachment in front of these situations, this mask however regularly cracks to let out a nervous laugh in front of the improbability of what is being played out in front of his eyes. This white/august clown relationship works very well and can be applied in complex ways in this group of four friends of misfortune. Tina will regularly become impatient with Norbert and Queenie’s recklessness, Queenie will be fascinated by Jacob’s simplicity and kindness, Jacob who is not indifferent to Queenie’s charms will be fascinated by the menagerie that Norbert hides in his magic suitcase. In a little over two hours of film, Rowling manages to create complex relationships, made up of small frustrations and day-to-day attention between a small number of people. It was known that she was capable of creating such an attachment in several hundred pages between the reader and a group of friends, but to achieve this on a single footage is a small feat.
This attention to detail is also reflected in the political and societal issues that the film tries, sometimes too succinctly, to convey. Some issues of communitarianism and racism are obviously put forward to give credibility and body to this magical American context of this era. The film transcribes these questions by the “Salem Church” which distributes soup to poor children in exchange for a promise to denounce if they see the slightest suspicious magical phenomenon.
However, apart from the obvious extremism, there are no real good guys or bad guys, at least they are not identified from the beginning. Many interests confront each other and it will take some time for the spectator to unravel the ball and understand what is going on, especially since some of Chekhov’s rifles are not so obvious to spot. Such a tangle of issues is often a good thing and warns of a manichaeism that sometimes undermines American blockbusters. Unfortunately, the film may be a little too late to explain some of the motivations. Percival Graves for example, which is played by this robot by Colin Farrell who doesn’t seem to have updated his expression palette, is a high-ranking officer of the magical police force and his intentions are not clearly depicted. We’ll soon realize that he’ll have an antagonistic role later in the plot, but before the end of the film, we don’t really know why. It’s a pity, because a little earlier text explanation of his motivations would have been interesting, especially with these malignant societal issues injected from the beginning.
As for the rest, it backfired, it exploded, it destroyed, it’s beautiful, it’s technically clean, the execution is very correct and we’re having a great time. Like Jacob who discovers the inside of Norbert’s suitcase for the first time, we marvel at the graphic generosity of the film and are enchanted by the strange fauna cheerfully depicted in it. The universe of the film is a little more mature, a little more serious, but it benefits from the same magic that animated the Harry Potter films. The discovery of objects, concepts, the way this world works makes you want to dive into it more. A drawer story characteristic of Rowling’s work that seems to be as comfortable in a book as it is in a screenplay.
You don’t have to be a fan of the nerd wizard world to enjoy Fantastic Animals. At best, this will save you some quick deductions in the way some spells work. The film also does not fall into the trap of trying to explain everything so as not to lose anyone. Jacob’s magical illiteracy would have been a perfect excuse to make the film look bad. When a sorcerer uses the “Alohomora” spell to open an unlocked door, the door opens and that’s it. The philistine spectator will draw conclusions from this and that’s enough. However, the film can’t help but “name drop” certain elements of the universe, so many insistent winks to the fans, even though these elements have no role in the film’s plot.
The Fantastic Animals had the challenge of detaching itself from the heavy Potterian assets while at the same time finding its own identity. It must be said that the bet has been successful. Here we are in front of a sensitive blockbuster that knows how to highlight the biscoteaux of its computer graphics as much as the charm of its main characters. One comes out of it just as happy to have met his fabulous bestiary as his charming cast. Magic!