The author of a textbook used by a magic student named Harry Potter gets his own giant franchise in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, David Yates’s very-much-in-the-spirit new addition to the Potter mythology. Working from the first screenplay penned directly by series creator J.K. Rowling, Yates also gets to offer the first Rowling movie for which fans won’t already know the plot. (The only extant book is the facsimile textbook describing magic creatures our hero has studied; the film’s events occur as he’s writing that tome.)
Likely to draw in just about everyone who followed the Potter series and to please most of them, the picture also has things to offer for fantasy-friendly moviegoers who only casually observed that phenomenon. The latter group, however, may be less convinced that this spin-off demands the five feature-length installments Warner and Rowling have planned.
Eddie Redmayne makes an ideal Newt Scamander, who is endearingly sheepish around humans but gifted with the nifflers, bowtruckles, erumpents and so forth to whom the pic’s title refers. As he travels the globe collecting magical creatures, the wizard-scholar carries an enviable answer to Noah’s ark: A humble leather suitcase that, like the Tardis and Mary Poppins’ bag, is far larger on the inside than the outside. In fact, its vast, barnlike interior seems to contain its own time-space portals, allowing its inhabitants to enjoy whatever kind of habitat — desert, the Arctic, cluttered set-designer’s attic — they desire.
The only thing the suitcase doesn’t have is a reliable lid, and Newt has barely arrived in New York City — the year is 1926, and Colleen Atwood’s costumes take lovely liberties with the period — before one of his more mischievous animals escapes, skittering around inside a bank and stealing shiny things. In the confusion, Newt’s case gets switched for that of Jacob (Dan Fogler), a portly, amiable baker who knows nothing of magic.
But by the time Newt realizes he has the wrong luggage, he’s in the custody of Tina (Katherine Waterston), a security officer with the Magical Congress of the United States of America. (Whereas British spellcasters give their institutions names like Hogwarts, Yanks get ugly acronyms like MACUSA. They also call Muggles “No-majs,” which means “no magic” and is as unpleasing to the ear as it is on the page.) Tina tries to get Newt in trouble for attracting attention in that bank fracas — No-maj groups like the Second Salem-ers are stirring up fear of witchcraft in the populace, shades of mutant persecution in the X-Men films, and American wizards keep themselves secret — but she’s in a bit of hot water herself, and ends up helping the out-of-towner hunt for his suitcase. That’s not terribly hard, once Jacob opens the thing and the escaped beasts leave a trail of mayhem all over town.
Tina brings the two men to her apartment for a pit stop, where they meet her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Jazz Age hottie who can read minds, takes a shine to Jacob, and makes the most of her too-few opportunities to charm the audience.
As these four try to collect all the escapees from Newt’s menagerie without making all of Manhattan aware of the magic around them, a MACUSA operative bearing the on-the-nose name Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) shadows them, pursuing some mysterious aims with the help of Ezra Miller’s Credence, the adopted (and abused) son of a puritanical witch-hater (Samantha Morton).
Invention and effects are the name of the game here, predictably, and this world invites us in as effectively as the best of the Potter episodes. (Only in scenes where actors pretend to handle tiny snake-like dragons is a CG illusion unconvincing.) Somewhat less effective is the film’s character-bonding agenda: Breaks in the action for, say, backstory about Newt’s long-lost love sometimes feel like items on a checklist. On the other hand, a dinner scene at Tina and Queenie’s place charms, and the rapport Redmayne generates with the various beasts Newt cares for gives the picture a heart.
Much of the film’s big wizarding-politics material will be appreciated mostly by those who thirst for ever more backstory in Rowling’s universe. It will doubtless be useful as the franchise progresses, though — the main villain, Gellert Grindelwald, makes the kind of teasing appearance at the end that promises a long Voldemort-like story arc. (Avoid IMDB if you want that cameo to surprise you.) Whether or not the ensemble chemistry ever clicks to the extent it did for Harry, Hermione, and Ron, Rowling clearly has an endless supply of lore left to share with those invested in her world.
Watch the trailer:
Production company: Heyday Films
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling
Producers: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Executive producers: Tim Lewis, Neil Blair, Rick Senat
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Mark Day
Composer: James Newton Howard
Casting director: Fiona Weir
PG-13, 132 minutes