Breathe easy, Potterheads: the joyous and imaginative Fantastic Beasts shows that this sandbox is big enough to play in for a long time.
My philosophy is, worrying means you suffer twice.
If you’re a Harry Potter obsessive, like my entire family is (including me — #RavenclawPride), you don’t need any prompting to see the newest addition to the Wizarding World saga, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. All you’ll want to know is that it is wonderful and you’ll love it, and that I am happy to confirm.
Conversely, if you didn’t really care for J.K. Rowling’s creation before, there’s not much I can say to convince to you go to this one. It’s more of the same, with new characters, new mythology, a new governmental structure to understand (as it’s set in 1920s New York City), and a dozen creature names you won’t remember. While it doesn’t require more than layman’s knowledge of the Potter series to make sense of this first installment, the implied direction of this five-film franchise-within-a-franchise hinges on the backstory of one of Potter’s major characters, glossed over in the film of The Deathly Hallows, and if even that term is Greek to you you might as well stop here.
So this review, then, is for the people in the squishy middle. You enjoyed the Harry Potter series, but are skeptical about what seems to be Rowling not knowing when to stop, and Warner Brothers being all too happy to keep milking its cash cow. Does Fantastic Beasts need to exist? Aren’t prequels inherently problematic, devoid of narrative tension? In short, is this another Hobbit trilogy?
The answer is yes, but no. The best thing I can say about Beasts is that it’s remarkably standalone. It starts out as a charming trifle, goes somewhere surprising and dark, then actually wraps it all up. Its protagonist, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, great playing a gangly English nerd) has a complete arc, and if the series — will it still be called Fantastic Beasts? — drifts away from him, fans can rest assured there’s enough Rowling ephemera out there to connect the dots of his life.
Here, Mr. Scamander arrives onto American shores with a singular purpose involving one of the creatures in his magical menagerie. They all live inside his suitcase, a feat of wizard engineering that makes Hermione’s purse look bush league. But he’s also not in total control; several of his animals are always attempting to escape (like the adorable, platypus-like Niffler, hoarder of all things shiny), and it isn’t long before Newt accidentally creates a crisis in the middle of Manhattan. And unfortunately for everyone involved, this comes at an already dangerous time. The dark wizard Grindelwald is looking to provoke open war between the magical and non-magical (“No-Majes,” as they’re called stateside) communities, and tensions within MACUSA, the local governing body, have never been higher.
Of course, Newt’s just here to write a book (indeed, the Hogwarts textbook that gives the film its name), and he is adamant that his creatures are, relatively speaking, harmless. That doesn’t stop disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) from taking him into custody, especially after one pig-like monstrosity bites a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); meanwhile — and there’s a lot of meanwhiles — the city is under threat from an entity that hasn’t been seen for nearly a century. There’s also a creepy family of anti-witchcraft fundamentalists, led by Samantha Morton; her troubled adopted son, Creedence (Ezra Miller); and Graves, head of MACUSA’s Auror department, played with chilly flair by Colin Farrell.
That’s an enormous amount of world-building for Rowling (writing the screenplay herself, her first) to lift; having already expanded her Potter-verse with bits of lore and epilogue on her Pottermore site, and continued Harry’s story with the well-received play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, here she winds back the clock to the eve of the Wizarding World’s last crisis point. Truth be told, I wasn’t (and still aren’t, not quite yet) invested in the macro story. But I was surprised at how much I came to love these new characters, and how smartly the film avoids just doing a retread of what came before (looking at you, The Force Awakens). Returning much of the original series’s production team, like set designer Stuart Craig and stalwart director David Yates, shows us that we’re in safe hands.
And if we’re going to stick with this crew for a while, casting is everything. Redmayne has had his detractors; his last three films — The Theory of Everything, Jupiter Ascending, and The Danish Girl — solidified his persona as a tryhard, transforming himself with each role in ways that simultaneously impressed for his dedication as much as appalled for his actual acting choices. As Newt, however, he’s delightful, modulating his performance throughout to show how Newt isn’t just a bookish obsessive with a quavery voice, but a heroic man of action when called upon. Counterbalancing him is the willowy Waterston, playing Tina as neurotic and insecure, but also whip-smart and impressively discerning.
The real finds are Fogel and Alison Sudol (as Queenie, Tina’s mind-reading sister). Both are unknowns, and both immediately stake out their places in the Potter canon. Kowalski is the audience surrogate, awestruck upon his entrance into the magical world; he warms to Newt and his zoo, and Newt warms to him, and he and Newt and Tina and Queenie all warm to each other. There’s a lot of warmth in this winter tale. It throws the story’s more disturbing elements, and its overarching themes of unity and tolerance (once again, an auspiciously-timed release) into sharper relief. The feeling of the film, and of being back in this world, sticks with you longer than your memories of what actually transpired in its procedural plot.
Where the film is most successful isn’t its efficient laying of narrative pipe, or even the thrilling (if a bit repetitive) encounters with the titular creatures, but in the smaller moments that remind you of how delightful these stories can be. Yates is smart enough to pace the magical derring-do with character-building moments. A quiet scene where Tina and Queenie casually prepare dinner hits you with the giddy thrill of Harry’s first trip to the Weasley Burrow even though we’ve seen similar magic a dozen times at this point. A visit to a goblin-run speakeasy is a mix of Mos Eisley cantina and Great Gatsby decadence, executed as only a Rowling story can be.
Fantastic Beasts could have been a well-meaning but empty exercise in fan service. At the end of the day, it might still be. But we’ve no reason not to trust Rowling’s imagination or storytelling skill, stitching the threads together until the full picture is stunningly clear and we fly headlong into its final act. So I’m going to grade it a bit lower than you might hope, but know that I am just as willingly along for the ride as you are.