Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a worthy successor to the Harry Potter franchise and an inspired jumpstart to a potential new global phenomenon.
J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is brought roaring back to life on the big screen some 70 odd years before the events of the beloved Harry Potter series in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Boy Who Lived is nowhere to be found, obviously, but other tangential connections to that blockbuster franchise can be found in small doses, providing the faithful with added context and comfort.
Aside from those necessary connections, the film focuses its sights on being its own unique property. It’s often joyous, wondrous, and rarely dull. The film is also funnier than one might expect from the outset, with humour found in some uncommon places. Plus, it’s eye-popping and visually astounding. Fantastic Beasts checks all the boxes for quality fantasy filmmaking and then some.
Fond feelings for the previous Rowling series might help bring people in the door, but on its own that won’t be enough to make them stick around for a reported five new films. But Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while billed as a prequel to the Potter stories, has enough stamina and richness to stand on its own. Even if it isn’t quite shoulder-to-shoulder with its legendary predecessor it’s a hell of a lot closer and consistent in quality than most spin-offs manage to achieve.
In 1926 New York, a quiet and jittery young writer named Newt Scamander arrives fresh off the boat with a magical suitcase in tow. He’s crossed the pond from England and sets the itinerary of his trip as a chance to find another magical beast to study. But, he soon gets caught up trying to stop an outbreak of dark magic from spreading throughout the city.
The Ministry of Magic doesn’t care to listen to him, but a disgraced former agent named Tina (Katherine Waterston) sees some method to Newt’s madness. Together they set out to find a few missing critters from Newt’s suitcase of wonder and track down the source of the new threat facing the wizarding universe. They bring along a muggle named Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to assist in maintaining the delicate balance between the magic world and the regular world.
While thrust into the role of hero, Newt’s really more of a scientist and a curious mind wandering a big, fascinating universe. In an awe-inspiring sequence set within the suitcase itself, Newt’s large love and respect for all creatures shines brightly and honorably through his winsome interactions with them. He isn’t capturing these beasts to cage them – he helps them, learns from them, and cares for them. He documents his findings for a book he’s writing; his goal is simply to increase understanding of the titular fantastic beasts amongst his fellow wizards, trying to open their minds to acceptance instead of fear. He isn’t the toughest guy, but he might be the most morally upstanding of the bunch.
This is the first original screenplay penned solely by J.K. Rowling and all the care, inventiveness, and surprises we’re used to reading in her books are visibly represented on the big screen. Most audiences had familiarity with the Harry Potter characters before the first movie was released, allowing for an easier transition into this world of witchcraft and wizardry. The characters in Fantastic Beasts are all new and in a foreign setting yet they still manage to make an indelible impression. They’re each well rounded, instantly defined, and unmistakably identifiable. Rowling remains a master of ensemble character adventure stories.
Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne makes Newt Scamander an endearing protagonist, a hero propelled by unbounded wonder in his mind and genuine kindness in his heart. Neither actor nor character seems to be taking things too seriously and the levity helps elevate some of the moments that might otherwise drown under a sea of VFX. Scamander at times seems mischievous but without malevolence. As understated as Redmayne’s performance is, Newt is still a livewire of a character to kick off a potential new classic franchise.
As Newt’s new American witch friend Tina, Katherine Waterston is perhaps the breakout star of the film. Previously known as the standout starlet from Inherent Vice and the estranged ex-lover of the eponymous Steve Jobs, she’ll have no trouble enchanting wider audiences after Fantastic Beasts. Dan Fogler, as a “no-maj” regular ol’ human, is a hopeless sad sack before an encounter with Newt brings out the adventure in him. The actor gives a likeable performance that earns its genuine stakes when Jacob reaches the end of his arc. Other supporting players, including Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, and Samantha Morton, are each equally effective. Miller in particular is given more than one chance to stretch his emotional muscles.
Director David Yates helmed the final four films in the Harry Potter franchise and his familiarity with the mood, tone, and visual design of this world immensely helps forge a smooth transition into the lives of these new characters. He guides the action with a steady hand and exerts complete control in all technical areas. Fantastic Beasts is as proficiently produced as any of the Potter films.
The beasts themselves are brought to life thanks to excruciatingly detailed CGI and some spot-on green screen interactions with the actors (Yates has pretty much mastered this art after five films in the Rowling world). The larger-than-life beings are bound to endear themselves to younger audiences while adding a splash of color and vibrancy that helps buoy spirits from the handful of darker, scarier moments that pepper the story. The production design and visual effects seamlessly combine to create an enriched, immersive world.
It is unlikely that the unconverted will want to dip their toes back into a universe they didn’t embrace the first time around. If someone’s had eight feature films to try out beforehand and couldn’t get into them, that feeling probably isn’t going to change here. But for the franchise genre film that is it, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an amazing place to start for newcomers. Knowledge of the Potter series enhances some aspects of the film but is far from integral in enjoying it for the delightful adventure that it is. Fans of J.K. Rowling and all that springs from her limitless imagination are guaranteed to leave happy.
Four out of five!
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ is Rated PG-13 and now playing everywhere.