Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows quirky wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) traveling from England to 1920s New York City, carrying a case of beasts from the magical world. An unexpected detour leads to Newt crossing paths with a "non-mag" baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), and that mixup leads to the bigger mishap of several creatures from Newt's case getting loose in NYC.
Before he knows it, Newt is being detained by would-be wizard cop Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and having his beasts scapegoated by the wizarding government of America. While everyone is looking at Newt and his creatures as threats, a dark force gathers in the streets, searching for something of dark power that would potentially tip the scales in the mounting civil war within the Wizarding World.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them brings back Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter 5-8 movie director David Yates, for this debut chapter in a Potter prequel saga, spun out of the famous Hogwarts textbook. The same cinematic magic that the creative team brought to those latter Potter films can be found alive and well in Fantastic Beasts - and with less obligation to source material and a more adult tone, the film is a welcome open tent to old and young, hardcore fans and newcomers alike. It may not be perfect, but it is triumphantly successful in selling the new franchise, and exciting us for more.
Yates and Rowling's working relationship is now established, and their creative synchronization is apparent in how thoroughly the world of Fantastic Beasts is realized. From the historical references to the fantastical elements of the wizarding world layered on top of that history, the film manages to accomplish some great (if only introductory) world-building. There is much that is only introduced or inferred in this first chapter, but the intrigue is there, and the hook baited. Visually speaking, the film shows off Yates' confidence and experience in this franchise; the tones of Oscar-winning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (Sherlock Holmes) look richly dark and lavish; and James Newton Howard's score makes us feel right at home again, while still conveying something exciting and new to explore.
Yates earned criticism for being a bit too superficial and rushed on the details of the later Harry Potter books, and that criticism can fairly be aimed at Fantastic Beasts, as well. The plotline laid out by Rowling attempts to be a pilot episode within a grand saga to come (it's the nature of the franchise universe business, these days); however, the abundance of plot threads and characters doesn't synch up as smoothly in the flow of the film. The second act has a lot of scenes and character jumps that make things seem muddled, even confusing at times. The third act attempts to resolve things with a fittingly grand battle, but the motivations for getting there and some of the big reveals may be hard for some viewers to keep track of.
The cast is a refreshing change of pace, and make the most noticeable difference in how the film plays. Having a cast of adult actors with more experience already makes Fantastic Beasts easier to take than, say, The Sorcerer's Stone (with its cast of young newcomers) - and the cast of Fantastic Beasts have great fun establishing some charismatic characters.
Eddie Redmayne bolsters the film as Newt Scamander, offering the portrait of a complicated adult who nonetheless exudes a childlike wonder. From his loping movements, to moments of endearing antics with his menagerie of magic creatures, Newt is a characteristically different (yet fundamentally recognizable) Harry Potter hero - and even though the film leaves an air of mystery hanging over Mr. Scamander, we learn enough to feel safe following him forward into the franchise. Katherine Waterston plays a great foil to Redmayne, as the equally quirky, feisty, and sensitive Porpentina Goldstein.
The real standouts, however, are Dan Fogler's Jacob and Alison Sudol's Queenie Goldstein. The pair are both zany foils to their respective lead characters (Newt and Porpentina), yet Fogler and Sudol nearly steal every scene they are in - respectively or collectively - with insatiable charisma and energy. The film gets a definite boost from their presence.
Meanwhile, actors like Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton (Minority Report), Ezra Miller (Justice League), Jon Voight and Carmen Ejogo (Selma) hold down the more serious roles in the story. They all do fine in creating their respective good/evil/moral gray characters, though they pale in comparison to the lead ensemble. Farrell and Miller's characters get the most jumbled storylines (for the sake of arguably weak payoff in the end) but it's a small flaw in the larger joy of the movie experience.
In the end, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an authentic and warm welcome back into the wizarding world, deserving of an IMAX sceen, and all the Potter fandom likely to pour into the cineplex. Proof positive that not all prequel/reboots are bad things.
LINKS: Our Fantastic Beasts Official Review / Where the Franchise Goes Next / Fantastic Beasts Timeline / Johnny Depp Rumored to Cameo / There Will be 5 Fantastic Beasts Films / Will we see the Dumbledore/Grindelwald Love Affair? / Who is Newt Scamander?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is now in theaters. It is 133 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence.