Five years since Harry Potter last displayed his wizarding ways on the big screen his creator, J.K. Rowling, is back with another adventure. The new film is a Potter prequel following the adventures of Newt Scamander, author of the textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (which also happens to be the name of this movie).
Taking place seventy years before Harry studied the text at Hogwarts, it hits on many of the things that made the Potter movies special—loyalty, courage, Good v. Evil—there are wands aplenty and yet it feels new and fresh.
Rowling fans will recognize the name Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). An employee at the British Ministry of Magic, at the start of the film he’s just arrived in New York City with a briefcase full of wild, wonderful and fantastic beasts. The year is 1926 and NYC is under attack by a mysterious, destructive paranormal force, dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald has gone missing and the zealous New Salem Philanthropic Society run by anti-magic fanatic Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is threatening to expose the seedy underbelly of wizardry in the city.
Not exactly the best time for a wizard to land in America with a case of magic beasts.
A simple mix-up with Newt’s suitcase—he inadvertently switches his with non-magical (or No-Maj) factory worker Jacob Kowalski’s (Dan Fogler) case—unleashes the beasts, finds Newt “arrested” by Magical Congress of the United States of America worker Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and uncovers a far reaching conspiracy that endangers wizards and No-Majs alike.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” feels like a Harry Potter film in spirit but looks nothing like the movies that came before it. Director David Yates, working from a script by Rowling, have reimagined the familiar wizarding world, adding period details ripe with richness. Rowling’s eye for story, quirky minutiae and veiled social comment—“I understand you have rather backward views about relations with non-magic people,” says Newt.—are all on display and should please her fanbase.
Also pleasing are the performances. Redmayne and Company, and this is very much an ensemble piece, find the humanity in the characters, even if they aren’t completely human. The performances feel somehow old fashioned, as if the actors stripped away any sense of method acting or other tricks, instead embracing the theatrical nature of the material. The actors occasionally get lost in the film’s reliance on CGI spectacle but always re-emerge to bring the story’s basic themes of loyalty, courage, Good v. Evil back to the fore.
When Newt says, “I was hoping to wait until we got to Arizona…” during one climatic moment he hints at adventures yet to come which feels like a set-up to a sequel. Those are the kind of words that usually fill me with dread—Just what we need, another franchise!—but “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” with its message that magic is all around us if we know where to look, is a handsome, entertaining and ultimately sequel worthy piece of work.