Fans of the Harry Potter books and films will enjoy the new offering from first-time screenwriter, J.K. Rowling, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Set in 1926 New York City, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist, carries a beat up suitcase where his creatures dwell. When he accidentally switches cases with a No-Maj (the American equivalent of Muggles, non-magic folk), a few of them get out resulting in a rousing caper to get them back.
The unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your point of view) No-Maj is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a simple factory worker who dreams of making his Grandmother proud by opening his own bakery, but he can’t get a loan from the bank. While he’s sulking, a cute Niffler slips out of the case. Drawn to shiny objects, the Niffler wreaks havoc in the bank. As Scamander and Kowalski work together to grab the Niffler, they’re noticed by ex-auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Because he has exposed the magical world to a No-Maj, she hauls Scamander to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) but the higher-ups ignore her.
If this were the only plot line, the film would be a sweet tale, the audience marveling at the creatures in the suitcase and how much love and care the bumbling Scamander showers on his strange creatures. Redmayne embodies the committed, yet slightly clueless wizard with humor and grace. Just watch the mating dance he performs to coax a rhino-like creature into the case. Fogler, as Scamander’s sidekick, brings a childlike wonder to his first glimpse of the magical world, seen through Newt’s eyes. Kowalski even catches the eye of Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s mind-reading sister.
Alas, a darker force lurks in the secondary plot line, one that speaks against bigotry and advocates tolerance of people’s differences. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) heads a group of anti-magic protestors. Her goal: to stamp out magic in all its forms. When an evil darkness begins tearing the city apart, Newt, Tina, Queenie, and Jacob try to stop it and thus prevent a war between the wizards and the humans.
What is this dark evil? It’s called an Obscurus (Rowling does have a gift for naming things) and it’s what happens when a magical child is forced to suppress his or her magic, kind of like those under Barebone’s care. Instead of learning how to control it, the magic festers inside them, breaking out in horrible ways.
While “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” delights when focusing on Scamander and his beasts, the darker story remains open-ended, hinting at the next four films being planned for the franchise. The story makes one thing clear, however, and it hearkens to a Bible story about putting a light under a bushel basket. If you have been given a gift, it needs to be nurtured in order to flourish. So discover God’s gifts to you, use them for the good of others, and let your light shine.