The players may be different but the magic of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world remain the same in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The boy wizard's name is never uttered once in author J.K. Rowling's spinoff, but this is unmistakably the Harry Potter franchise that we grew with and loved through seven movies. But 'Beasts' is, not to put too fine a point on it, a totally different beast that both strips down and expands the extensive continuity Rowling has created, and does it with a light-hearted spirit that is sure to cast a spell over audiences.
Not being the 'Potter' aficionado some of my friends are, I had no idea what the heck the film was actually about beyond the basics. A perfectly nerdy Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, who arrives in 1926 New York carrying a magical briefcase full of fantastic creatures. Newt is a terrific character unlike any we've seen from Rowling so far; think of him as the Steve Irwin of mages. He only wants to protect these creatures from harm, and later we learn he feels that humans are their greatest threat. He isn't wrong, especially considering the tumultuous time for America that he's stepping into. But it's also a complicated period for wizards, as the evil Grindelwald is on the loose and stirring up trouble. A difficult relationship with the No-Majs aka the American muggles has the majority of the wizards living in the shadows, governed by the stern hand of the MACUSA and its President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). Rowling has always allowed for politics to play a part but it's more prevalent and structured here, denoting a clear contrast between the European and American wizarding systems. Fear-mongering is running rampant throughout the No-Maj and magical communities, used as a tool to serve nefarious needs.
But that's not where the fun lies, it's in Newt's scampering around the city to recover the many amazing creatures that have escaped his care. How'd that happen? Thanks to another of the film's many great characters, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj with a love of baking and a knack for finding trouble. When he and Newt inadvertently swap briefcases, Jacob unleashed some of the creatures who proceed to cause mischief all across New York. Along the way Newt also encounters a rebellious MACUSA detective, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who thinks him a danger before realizing there are worse things out there. Along with her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), the foursome set out to find the creatures before they expose the magical community once and for all.
As for those beasts, they are as fantastic as advertised and more. The film's visual highlight finds Newt dragging Jacob inside the briefcase to experience a mesmerizing menagerie of creatures in an ever-shifting landscape. There are dragons, plant creatures, giant (and very horny) rhino-things, regal griffins, all gifted with Rowling's wondrous attention to detail. You could spend an entire movie there just watching these animals and experiencing the same amazement as Jacob. All of them stand out for different reasons, but the one that I suspect will be this year's Groot is the Niffler, a fuzzy platypus-like creature that can't resist shiny objects. He escapes Newt's capture more than once and in a place like New York City has plenty of riches to steal.
Rowling manages to juggle (I almost wrote muggle) the merriness of Newt's monster-hunting with a worrisome darkness that hopefully won't overtake the upcoming sequels. Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, a powerful mage of the MACUSA who guides a troubled young pupil named Credence (Ezra Miller), the abused adopted son of a No-Maj cult leader (Samantha Morton) on a witch hunt. These sections are some of the least effective because they mess up a fairly tidy plot, but also because they feel beholden to the needs of a franchise. Part of what makes the film work so well is that it manages to be a self-contained story while also dropping a few familiar names that will make 'Potter' fans' ears perk up. Rowling makes the use of the period backdrop that combines elements of the old jazz age style, era-specific architecture, and supernatural elements making for a truly unique visual experience. It's another feather in the cap of director David Yates, who led the maturity of the 'Potter' franchise and keeps finding new ways to astonish, although his gloomy is becoming gloomier by the movie.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of what will be five movies when all is finished, shows that Rowling's Potterverse has a limitless potential for growth. There are so many wonderful characters and concepts introduced that any one of them could branch out into something new and spectacular. While we know where Rowling plans to take Newt's adventures next, we have no earthly idea what else her incredible imagination will come up with. Whatever it is I'm in for the ride. Just let me pack my suitcase.
Rating: 4 out of 5