4 out of 5 stars.
2016 is shaping up the be the year of Harry Potter: five years after the last movie came out (and almost ten since the last book), we’ve gotten not only a play and published script of an all new story following those characters, but a new spinoff film as well. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” features “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s screenwriting debut, with a story loosely centered around the wizarding textbook of the same name (Rowling published a version of it in 2001).
Virtually everything about “Fantastic Beasts” is different from the “Harry Potter” series, and that’s both a blessing and curse. Instead of being set in present day England, it’s set in 1926 New York, where Newt Scamander (the future author of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) has just from overseas, carrying what appears to be an ordinary suitcase. In fact, the cast contains a habitat filled with various magical creatures, none of which we’ve seen in the Harry Potter universe before; there’s everything from the adorable Niffler (a platypus-looking creature that is attracted to jewels and precious metals) to the more intimidating, rhino-like critter known as an Erumpent.
Newt runs into problems almost immediately when his Niffler escapes and runs into a bank, forcing Newt to reveal his magic powers to Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (non-magical person) who works in a factory but wants to get a loan to open a bakery. The whole debacle is witnessed by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror who immediately tries to arrest Newt.
But there are bigger forces at play here than just Newt’s creatures constantly escaping his bag and roaming around New York (although that is a concern for much of the story). A woman named Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is running a sort of orphanage, where she uses the children to help her preach her anti-witch, anti-magic sermons. But her adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller) has been secretly tasked by auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to look for a child who Graves believes may be magical, and have connections to certain incidents happening around the city.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is directed by David Yates, who also helmed the last four movies in the “Harry Potter” series, and from the start it has that feeling of familiarity, right down to John Williams’ now iconic theme music playing over the Warner Brother logo. But the really great thing about “Fantastic Beasts” is that while it still feels like it fits in the Harry Potter universe, it is an entirely different sort of story, showing us a time and place in the magical world that we’ve never seen before. It’s a testament to the scope of Rowling’s imagination that after all this time she’s still able to leave fans in awe of the universe she’s created. The beasts are truly fantastic, the gorgeous special effects adding to the film’s whimsical feeling, and it’s fun to see how magic works in the everyday world, outside of Hogwarts (outside of Europe, even). There are several nods to things we’ve learned in the “Harry Potter” stories, so while it helps to go into “Fantastic Beasts” with some prior knowledge of the universe, it isn’t essential; “Fantastic Beasts” takes place so long before “Harry Potter” that it stand well enough on its own.
Another thing Rowling did quite well with her later “Harry Potter” stories was to use the magical world to address social issues, and that’s something that comes up in the film here in the form of children who harbor dark magic as a result of feeling pressured by society to suppress their growing powers. The film doesn’t beat that message over the audience’s heads, and perhaps it can be interpreted as having deeper meaning than it actually does; but the lashing out at people who are different is a conflict that feels all too familiar in our society today. Either way, it adds a more thought-provoking layer to what is otherwise a pretty straight-forward fantasy film.
The cast is quite good as well. Redmayne is appropriately aloof, while Fogler, Waterston, and Alison Sudol as Tina’s sister Queenie round out the delightful crew, with Fogler in particular providing much of the comic relief with his constant dumbfounded stares at all the crazy new magical goings-on he’s witnessing. We also get Ron Perlman in a quick but memorable role as a goblin who runs a speakeasy (yes, there are wizard speakeasies!) and Carmen Ejogo as the strict President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Morton and Milller bring an extra dash of intrigue to the story, Miller especially doing a great job as the awkward and oppressed young man who doesn’t seem to be accepted by anyone, anywhere. Meanwhile, Faith Wood Blagrove, who plays one of the Barebone daughters, is a shoe-in for the Creepiest Horror Movie Child of the Year Award. But some of the other supporting characters don’t seem to serve much purpose and get lost in everything else that’s happening; for instance, Jon Voight’s Henry Shaw, whose son Henry (Josh Cowdry) is a senator, and other son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) believes in magic, much to both Henrys’ annoyance.
But the story, as entertaining and even sometimes thrilling as it is, doesn’t quite hold up. The comparisons to the main “Harry Potter” series are inevitable, but at least “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book/film in the series, feels like its own contained story while also setting up the conflict for the rest of the series. It was recently announced that “Fantastic Beasts” would be a five film series, and it feels like this movie does little more than set things up for bigger and better things to come. The plot leaves a lot of little loose ends, and we never really get to know any of the main characters. In fact, Jacob is probably the one we learn the most about; even with Newt, the main character, we are fed just a teenie bit of information on his backstory. It’s safe to assume that there are many revelations to come over the course of the next four films, but by withholding so much now this movie suffers.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” may not be fantastic in every sense, but it does have those moments that take your breath away—like when Newt and Jacob enter the suitcase and we see the magical creatures’ habitats for the first time. It’s a flawed film, but a promising start to what, if this movie is any indication, will be a fantastic series indeed.
Runtime: 133 minutes. Rated PG-13.