'Fantastic Beasts' And 'The Red Turtle' Bring Magic To The Screen

Nov 18, 2016
Originally published on November 18, 2016 5:17 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

J.K. Rowling might have conjured her last "Harry Potter" novel, but she is still making magic. Her film "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" takes place decades before Harry was born. It's a prequel of sorts, centered on a not-quite-so-young wizard who accidentally releases some unusual creatures in 1920s New York. And speaking of creatures, the animators at Studio Ghibli are releasing "The Red Turtle" for an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles this weekend. Critic Bob Mondello says both films qualify as magical, each in its own way.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: OK, muggles, the wait is over. Wizard Newt Scamander has no sooner stepped off the boat at Ellis Island than it's clear the place to find fantastic beasts is in his suitcase, the one from which tiny paws keep emerging when no one's looking. The question is will the customs guy notice?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

SAM REDFORD: (As customs official) First trip to New York?

EDDIE REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) Yes.

REDFORD: (As customs official) Anything edible in there?

REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) No.

MONDELLO: Got to ask the right question.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

REDFORD: (As customs official) ...Livestock?

MONDELLO: Ooh, that's closer. The latch flips open on the suitcase.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) Must get that fixed. No.

REDFORD: (As customs official) Let me take a look.

MONDELLO: Precisely what audiences will be murmuring, Newt's suitcase turns out to be a good deal bigger on the inside than on the outside, crammed to the latches with critters not exactly native to the U.S. - bowtruckles, nifflifs (ph), murtlaps, for instance. A number of them escape, and that presents problems because muggles, the non-magical folks known on this side of the Atlantic as the No-Majs, are easily startled.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

KATHERINE WATERSTON: (As Tina Goldstein) Something is stalking our city, wreaking destruction and then disappearing without a trace.

MONDELLO: The year is 1926, and street preachers aren't just railing about bootleg liquor. They want a prohibition on foreign influence, on otherness. So do some in the media.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

DAN FOGLER: (As Jacob Kowalski) The people behind this are not like you and me.

MONDELLO: Screenwriter J.K. Rowling isn't timid about what she means by this. She's said viewers are welcome to find echoes of today's world when she depicts intolerance wearing a veneer of religious piety backed by folks with deep pockets. Her portrait of a loyal opposition that's too busy arguing about tactics to be very effective is also pointed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM")

COLIN FARRELL: (As Percival Graves) Setting a pack of dangerous creatures loose who was just another accident, is that right?

REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) Why would I do it deliberately?

FARRELL: (As Percival Graves) To expose wizard kind, provoke war between the magical and magical worlds.

REDMAYNE: (As Newt Scamander) Mass slaughter for the greater good, you mean.

FARRELL: (As Percival Graves) Yes, quite.

MONDELLO: Eddie Redmayne is a determined, sweet-natured magizoologist. And he's interacting with a digital menagerie that's as amusingly persuasive as special effects can make it. Director David Yates, the guy who brought gravity to the "Harry Potter" movies, keeps things moving and not too dark. He's dealing with more setup than story. But "Fantastic Beasts" is part one of a Newt Scamander series - four more installments to come, lots of time for the plot to thicken.

You could say that "The Red Turtle" is equally unhurried. In the animated film that bears its name, the turtle doesn't even show up for about half an hour, letting the movie start with a raging tempest at sea - gray waves roiling and crashing, leaving a lone human survivor shipwrecked on a tiny island. Rendered in intricate line drawings and deep pastels, the island's bamboo forest offers the man shelter and a possible way out. But when he builds a bamboo raft and tries to sail away, he only gets so far. Something seems not to want him to leave. A few broken rafts later, he discovers what - a turtle about the size of a Volkswagen.

To go on about what happens would spoil the film's surprises. Suffice it to say that the red turtle owes a little something to "Robinson Crusoe" and quite a lot to "Blue Lagoon." It shows us nature at its most jeopardizing and its most generous. There are tiny turtles that don't make it back to sea, and tiny scuttling crabs that, in a Disney movie, would probably sing, but that in this one fascinate in more natural ways.

Written and directed by a Dutch animator in a rare co-production for Japan's Studio Ghibli, "Red Turtle" blends elements of several styles of animation - charcoal-drawn backgrounds, digitally-animated action - to make a tale of trauma and transformation as flat-out gorgeous as it is wordless. Deliberate and painterly, it's unlikely to hold the interest of children, but it will qualify as a Zen-like treat for us older folks. A survival story that centers on family, with tsunamis and sunsets, glorious blues, greens and grays and that remarkable red turtle, a fantastic beast if ever there was one. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.