I’m sure admirers of the works of author J.K. Rowling already know this, but it bears repeating: don’t expect backstories and answers to all the questions raised in this first of what is said to be a five-film franchise to be revealed in the first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Raise Them. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay (her first) for this movie, is all about the slow reveal, so look at this first chapter as just that—an introduction to a whole host of new characters and situations that will be further explored in the years to come. That said, Fantastic Beasts does feel more like a stand-alone tale than any of the Harry Potter films, the universe of which pops in from time to time in this story as well.
For those living under a rock, Fantastic Beasts is indeed set in the Potterverse, but several decades earlier, which means certain older characters’ names from those stories might make an appearance here and there; certainly some of the terminology and artifacts (wands are quite prevalent in this film) will be familiar. But the characters are all new, beginning with Newt Scamander (a bumbling, shy Eddie Redmayne), who arrives on Ellis Island in New York in 1926 after a journey from England, carrying only a beat-up suitcase filled with unfamiliar creatures, which Newt has been charged with caretaking.
Apparently in the American version of wizarding, creatures are now allowed, so Newt must sneak his case into the country. The specifics of why he’s left England and why he’s brought this seemingly bottomless case into the states is uncertain, but it doesn’t take long for a mishap to result in the case getting accidentally switched and several of the creatures set loose by an unsuspecting No-Maj (as in No Magic, American for “muggle”) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who soon becomes Newt’s closest ally.
As one might expect in America, there are plenty of forces working against Newt, including the American wizards, who are angered at the destruction caused by some of released creatures. The US wizards are led by Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), whose chief enforcer is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). Graves is a busy man, as he’s also chasing down the source of a particularly nasty smoke monster called an Obscurus, the source of which is unknown, but they tend to manifest from those suppressing their magical abilities. The magic overall community is under attack by No-Maj hate groups, including one led by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), a Puritanical type who drags her children to rallies, including her eldest, Credence (Ezra Miller), who is having secret meetings with certain wizards.
Meanwhile, Newt and Jacob have teamed up with wizards more friendly to their cause, including Katherine Waterston’s Porpentina Goldstein and Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein. A budding romance between Jacob and Queenie seems particularly important since a love affair between a magic type and a non-wizard would result in half-blood offspring, something that is key to the Potter world. A large portion of Fantastic Beasts involves these four chasing after released creatures, which is certainly a great deal of fun but it doesn’t exactly deepen the mythology. That being said, if there’s any way one of you could score me an adorable Niffler, I’d be much obliged.
Director David Yates (who helmed the last few installments of the Harry Potter films) has a great number of sinning plates in the air here, but he does an admirable job of keeping things moving and avoiding too many details that might lead to confusion. And not to put too fine a point on it, but Newt Scamander proves himself to be about the worst person to trust with case filled with strange, often dangerous creatures. He’s sweet and adorable, yes, but he’s clumsy, reckless, and easily distracted. Still, once we step inside the case’s vast expanses, it’s like we’re looking at the world’s most incredible zoo, with seemingly endless numbers and sizes are weird animals. If there is magic in our own world, it is clearly controlled by the folks that created these fantastic beasts.
The non-stop chasing of Fantastic Beasts grows a little tiresome by the end of the film, but there is something special about moving through (and in some cases, leveling) ’20s New York City. The film’s costuming and production design are eye candy for period-film lovers and noticeably impressive. Also, there’s something a bit wonky about the logic of the story. Although we’re clearly supposed to be rooting for Newt and his friends to not get caught, they are in fact endangering countless lives (some deaths actually occur here) with these accidentally released creatures, so the fears of the other wizards and the anti-magic zealots are 100 percent justified. I feel like I’m pointing out the obvious, but maybe it won’t be to some.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a genuinely interesting, sometimes thrilling new world that still feels vaguely familiar. The movie makes it easy to get excited to see where things go from here, which storyline gets built out and which are abandoned. This first offering doesn’t rely on the Potter connection to make it interesting, but it will be fun to see how much the elements of this story feed into the ones we already know. More than anything, Fantastic Beasts is a franchise film (even if it’s franchise adjacent) that doesn’t disappoint this year—something that seems in rare supply this year.