FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM movie poster | ©2016 Warner Bros.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM movie poster | ©2016 Warner Bros.

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Director: David Yates
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: November 18, 2016

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM by Newt Scamander is, as everyone in the wizarding world knows, a key textbook at Hogwarts. Should you, dear reader, not be up on the minutiae of the wizarding world, FANTASTIC BEASTS was first introduced in author J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER series as a book read at school by Harry and his classmates. Rowling then went on to actually write the book as a contribution to a charity.

Now Rowling has written FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM as her first screenplay. It’s directed by David Yates, who also helmed half of the HARRY POTTER feature films. FANTASTIC BEASTS is set very much in the HARRY POTTER universe, but it has a different feel, different characters and a different setting.

We’re in 1926 New York, where young wizard Newt (Eddie Redmayne) disembarks from a trans-Atlantic ocean liner with a briefcase full of, well, fantastic beasts. The briefcase works like a TARDIS – it’s much, much bigger on the inside. There seems to be some sort of magical beast terrorizing New York’s wizarding world and the No-Majs (i.e., Muggles, or non-magical people) alike. This is causing great alarm to the American magical community, who are afraid of persecution if normal folk find out they exist. This fear is not without basis: a group called the New Salemers, after the Salem witch trials, insists that witches exist and should be killed. There’s also a marauding evil wizard called Gellert Grindelwald on the loose.

Newt isn’t aware of any of this when he lands. However, after Newt has a mix-up with a non-magical aspiring baker named Jacob (Dan Fogler), some of the beasts escape the briefcase, leading both men into a series of wild adventures.

This is all a lot of fun, with the colorful and imaginative creatures standing out against the beiges and grays of the city. The beasts all have a great deal of personality, and several have large impacts on the plot as well.

It is Jacob rather than Newt who serves as the audience’s way into the story. Fogler is delightful as the astounded but almost always game stranger in a strange land. Redmayne is charming as the driven Newt, so intent on what he’s doing that he’s a bit slow in recognizing the big picture unfolding around him. Katherine Waterston is appealing as the witch Tina, and Alison Sudol has a period-perfect look and Judy Holliday timing as Tina’s likewise enchanting sister Queenie.

The exposition is sometimes a bit garbled. It’s unclear why certain types of magic can be deployed in one situation but not another. A larger issue is that, while we recognize the common elements and the shout-outs, FANTASTIC BEASTS isn’t really a HARRY POTTER film, and it suffers from the comparison. HARRY POTTER started out by taking the grade school experience and literally making it magical. FANTASTIC BEASTS isn’t really a metaphor for anything. Yes, there are allegorical aspects, but they’re not at the core of the story. This is a period urban fantasy, and it’s got swell slapstick, a fine cast and some inspired zoology. But it doesn’t have either the thrill of the new that we got with the early HARRY POTTER installments, nor the depth of character that grew with the series. That said, FANTASTIC BEASTS is the first in a proposed series of five films, so its protagonists should have room to grow.

Is FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM going to supplant HARRY POTTER in most people’s hearts and minds? Probably not. But it is where you can find a high grade of enjoyable fantasy.

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