'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' Review: A Dark and Whimsical Saga for the Grown-Up 'Harry Potter' Fan

John Boone
Entertainment Tonight

Plenty of beasts go bump in the night in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but nothing else -- none of the magical new locations or ideas introduced in the movie, none of the new slang or spells or the different time period -- bumps. The expansion of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world feels new but also familiar, and it fits perfectly into what we've come to know and love in Harry Potter.

Fantastic Beasts takes place in the wizarding world of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, bashful and boyish and playing everything with a wink and a sideways smirk), a magizoologist who is canvassing the globe to write a book about creatures. During a trip to New York City, a spot of bad luck involving mixed-up cases and a handful of escaped beasts sends Newt on an adventure with Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the charmingly buffoonish no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

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Newt's arrival in the Big Apple also coincides with the rise of the Second Salemers, a bone-chillingly creepy group attempting to sniff out the witches among us. The movie hints at a brewing war between wizards and no-maj -- "When they're scared, they attack," Tina says of the latter -- as well as inexplicable dark forces at play, all of which sets the groundwork for not only this film but its four proposed sequels.

Fantastic Beasts, as directed by David Yates (who helmed the Harry Potter series from Order of the Phoenix through the final Deathly Hallows installment) from a screenplay by Rowling herself, has to do a lot of legwork to set up this story. There isn't a natural entry point, as there was with Harry starting school, and it doesn't rely on any pre-existing settings or timeframe, instead starting fresh in 1920s America. (Though, Harry Potter always did feel of a previous time.)

Additionally, because Newt grew up in and has already grown accustomed to the wizarding world, there are far fewer moments of sheer wonder than in the Potter franchise. The most magical reveal in the film involves the true nature of what's inside Newt's case, so I won't spoil it here. (Also, I couldn't quite put it in words if I wanted to.) Beasts were always among the more fun parts of any Harry Potter movie, and it's free rein on beasts here: There's a little kleptomaniac platypus! There's a bird that's also a yo-yo! Some of the beasts are adorable, some are honestly repulsive, but each is a wonder to behold.

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Other parallels can surely be drawn to Harry Potter -- though there is no new Harry or Hermione or Ron, there is another trio at the heart of the film, including a brainy lady and dopey pal -- but this really is its own, forgive the pun, beast. One of the film's greatest accomplishments, one that carries over from the Potter films and the books before that, is a deft handling of tone. Fantastic Beasts is tinged with a sense of whimsy, taking delight in moments of utter cuteness, expertly balanced with a gritty, bleaker underbelly. (There's also a bit of schmaltz, because this is J.K. Rowling.) Unlike the adventures of the boy wizard, there is no ease into the darkness of Fantastic Beasts; it is present from the very beginning.

This feels like a movie for fans who came of age during Harry Potter's tenure in the zeitgeist. But by that same measure, Fantastic Beasts could never feel as special -- it wasn't preceded by novels and midnight release parties and a culture of devotion that created such a special connection for viewers. But there is magic there. And as someone who only read the first, fourth, and last Harry Potter books but saw all the movies, I was captivated.

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