“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is set in J.K. Rowling’s rich fantasy universe, roughly 70 years before Harry Potter enrolled at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Hogwarts gets a shout-out, as does future headmaster Albus Dumbledore, but the story stands entirely on its own — even when you kind of wish it wouldn’t.
Despite the (somewhat disappointing) lack of connection to its inspiration, “Fantastic Beasts” effectively captures the feel of the Potterverse, from its whimsical humor to the darker, serious themes underneath.
The paranoid tone is set immediately: Mysterious attacks and rumors of a rogue wizard have set 1920s New York City on edge, inspiring draconian rules among the secretive magical community and the rise of an extremist anti-witchcraft group.
Into this mess stumbles English wizard Newt Scamander (an adorably nerdy Eddie Redmayne), who carries a suitcase full of magical creatures. When they escape, he gets entangled with the American version of the Ministry of Magic. His only allies are disgraced witch Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sexy telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a bewildered “No-Maj” (American for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
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Newt’s efforts to retrieve his beasts make up most of the storyline, and that’s where all the fun is. The creatures are delightful, from the Niffler (basically a kleptomaniac platypus) to the majestic Thunderbird. Newt’s suitcase is a Doctor Who-like portal to a zoo of sorts, where he keeps the creatures safe while he studies them. “Fantastic Beasts” was originally published as a faux Hogwarts textbook, so Rowling adapts it for the screen by showing its “author” at work, cleverly turning her thin, non-narrative glossary into an engaging adventure.
She even adds a little romance. Newt and Tina are both so dedicated to their work, it takes them a while to notice each other, but their chemistry is clear from the beginning. Even schlubby, self-deprecating Jacob catches the eye of Queenie, and her interest is actually convincing. She may be a flapper version of Marilyn Monroe, but she knows a good man when she meets one. Being able to read his mind helps.
The subplot involving Samantha Morton’s anti-magic activist is suitably chilling — this woman is like a human Dementor, draining joy and hope from any room she enters. But Rowling adds yet another storyline, about the clueless bureaucrats of the wizarding world and their terrible, terrible security. We’ve seen this before, and it’s a drag on the movie. Director David Yates, who also helmed the last four Potter films, understands Rowling’s work almost as well as she does, but even he can’t do much with this.
As the first of five planned films, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” does exactly what it needs to do, introducing new characters and setting up ongoing plot threads. It’s certainly more nimble and entertaining than the first couple of Potter movies. That series improved significantly as it went along, and if this one follows the same pattern, the Harry Potter universe could expand like the inside of Newt’s suitcase. It’ll be a wonderful place to explore.
Read more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:12.