A movie based on a text book, even one for fictional teenage wizards, is something of a hard sell. But Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them captures the wonder and magic of the wizarding world of Harry Potter. While extant fans will get the most mileage, and the connections are obvious—though it thankfully never veers into Hobbit-esque straight up shilling for the previous franchise—it stands on its own, and the high adventure and marvelous action astound.
In the Harry Potter movies, the adolescent wand wielders study a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film, written by mastermind J.K. Rowling, follows the author of that book, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Set in the 1920s, generations before the Boy Who Lived was even a glimmer, Newt shows up in New York City with a magical suitcase full of wonderful creatures. A few get out, and, as one imagines, things get hectic. His exploits put him in conflict with Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced former auror for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), the magical governing body in the States; her spacy sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol); a nomaj—the American name for Muggle, or “no magic,” a term I quite despise—named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); and the wizarding world’s desire to remain hidden.
One of the biggest strengths of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is how it opens up this familiar world in new ways. Fans spent eight movies in a single place and time—England in the modern era. This provides a different perspective; we finally get to see other parts of this universe. It’s part history lesson, but also reveals a fresh point of view on the magical realm.
Fraught with terror, evil wizards, and prejudice, the plot parallels to the current state of the world—except, you know, the wizard part. Tension between the magical and non-magical seethes under the surface. MACUSA president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) fights to remain hidden, while other factions push to step out of the shadows and exert dominance over mankind. Like with the Harry Potter tales, rigid, ineffective bureaucracy proves a constant roadblock to progress, and driven magical purists escalate conflict. It’s a recognizable but effective triangle of righteous rebels fighting the good fight, bogged-down government red tape getting in the way, and straight up fascists trying to seize power.
Dark plots and conspiracies abound, and religious zealots push for a “second Salem.” Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) leads this faction with her brood of brow-beaten orphans, including Credence (Ezra Miller). At any moment there’s much more going on that meets the eye. Fantastic Beasts drops the audience in the middle—it doesn’t waste any time—but the texture and details reveal a fully-rendered world and characters. We learn about the place, time, and people by seeing it all in action.
No one in Fantastic Beasts is quite what they appear on the surface. Newt is essentially a conservationist, travelling the world, collecting his wonderful creatures, seeking to educate a fearful population—New York has outlawed the breeding of magical animals and beasts have become boogeymen and scapegoats. He’s an awkward, antisocial weirdo who rarely looks anyone directly in the eye. And Eddie Redmayne excels at playing charming outliers.
Katherine Waterston, however, is the real breakout of Fantastic Beasts. Showing off an ever-growing—or at least in the public consciousness—range, Tina is meek and vulnerable, strong and driven, and she’s delightful and strange and charming all at once. Waterston gives a delicate, remarkable performance that lingers long after the film.
Often overblown and, frankly, obnoxious in most roles (though I admittedly like him in Take Me Home Tonight), Dan Fogler’s Jacob is a lunky meat head everyman along for the ride. But he, too, shows he’s more than that. As does Allison Sudol with Queenie. Ditzy and spacey at first glance, she has the ability to read minds, which gives her an empathy and wisdom beneath what initially appears to be a vapid exterior. Colin Farrell’s all-star auror Percival Graves provides a solid antagonistic force. Samantha Morton’s anti-witch fanatic is the most one-note character with any significant screen time, though Ezra Miller does what he does best, playing another discomfiting creeper.
With four Harry Potter movies already under his belt, director David Yates knows the wizarding world inside and out, and it’s a blast to watch him explore and shine the light into new corners. His camera swoops and soars through the New York of the roaring ‘20s, at times distractingly dizzying. But it’s the creature design that truly enchants. We’ve seen fantastic beasts before, but nothing like this. Wondrous and inventive and clever, they’re gorgeous and fun and there’s never a doubt that they’re real.
The biggest flaw with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, however, is that it is, at times, too in love with its own cleverness. Often at the expense of things like pace and tempo. Watching Newt and Jacob wander through the interior of Newt’s beat-up satchel—it’s much bigger on the inside—meeting all the members of his menagerie, is breathtaking. But it’s also way too drawn-out, and the forward momentum of the larger narrative noticeably slows.
Overall, Fantastic Beasts simply runs too long. The climactic battle, which is also the most familiar part of the movie—we’ve seen similar magical clashes before, and while it’s exciting, it does little to stand out—just kind of goes on and on and refuses to end. A few subplots feel superfluous, notably one with Jon Voight as a newspaper mogul, and things could easily be streamlined.
It is difficult to say that anything is entirely unnecessary though. Especially knowing how intricately plotted the Harry Potter saga is. We’re talking about a story where a seemingly throwaway gadget in the very first scene in the first book comes back to play an integral role in the final installment. I know all of this—as well as a number of other details, asides, and plot points that don’t pay off in this film—lay the groundwork for the reported four (!) upcoming sequels. And I’m sure they all play integral parts, but in this movie, on this screen, things tend to get a bit bloated.
But in the grand scheme, these are minor quibbles. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them provides more than enough spectacle and thrill to easily skip over any pitfalls. It captures the wonder and enchantment of Harry Potter, while infusing it with a new energy—despite being set in the same world, it’s never stale or too familiar. Exciting and vibrant, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them delivers the kind of blockbuster fun and energy that was sorely lacking during the summer months this year. [Grade: B+]