Like George Lucas creating Star Wars or J.R.R. Tolkein creating the Lord of the Rings, inventing an entire fictional world is no easy task. For that reason alone, J.K. Rowling deserves a seat at the table with the rest of the geniuses of creative fiction. I’ve always been a huge fan of Rowling’s (despite never reading a single Harry Potter book) based on the intricacies of the characters and stories in the eight Harry Potter films. So it only made sense for Rowling to offer up another window into her wizarding world in a new era and with brand new characters.
Loosely based on a novelized version of Harry Potter’s fictional textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a magizoologist who keeps, rescues, and studies magical creatures. His exploits lead him to 1920’s New York where running into a non-wizard factory worker at the bank (Dan Fogler) leads to several of his secret creatures getting loose. When Tina (Katherine Waterston), a demoted former official for the U.S. Magical Congress, and her telepathic witch sister (Alison Tudol) learn of Scamander and his escaped magical animals, they join to help locate them before the already tense relations between wizards and non-wizards leads to war.
There are several suplots in Fantastic Beasts that may make the film feel muddled, especially for newcomers to J.K. Rowling’s universe. One involves an awkward teen (Ezra Miller) being torn between witch hunting with his abusive adoptive mother and helping the film’s primary antagonist (Colin Farrell) track down a dark entity. But the movie really works best when it focuses on Scamander’s search for his lost creatures instead of building an overarching subplot for inevitable sequels.
All of the beasts are fun and interesting from a platypus-like creature that loves to steal anything shiny to a rhinoceros-like beast in dire desire to mate. And all of the best scenes in the movie highlight Scamander’s love for and interaction with these creatures. Eddie Redmayne is born for the role, portraying Scamander with the perfect dose of endearing social awkwardness and genuine heart. As a result, Newt Scamander is an inherently likable character that is different enough from anything we saw in the Harry Potter franchise.
As for the supporting cast, they’re hit or miss. Waterston’s Tina comes off as more annoying than interesting and Tudol’s Queenie Goldstein is pretty and quirky but does little more than make heart eyes at Fogler’s character. Colin Farrel’s villain Percival Graves starts off as an intriguing character with mysterious motivations, but by the end he becomes a sniveling, watered down and less intimidating version of Voldermort. The most enjoyable supporting human in the film is easily Dan Folger’s Jacob Kowalski who provides some fun physical comedy and a fairly charming back story.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends up being a fun and mystifying, albeit overstuffed, introduction into a whole new narrative within an already intriguing universe. No, this is NOT Harry Potter and anyone who goes in thinking otherwise may come out disappointed. Pacing and characters are much different than they were in the Potter films, but the tone is still there and along with a loveable protagonist there’s enough to enjoy this movie and look forward to the future adventures of Newt Scamander.
FINAL GRADE: B