Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler
Directed by: David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”)
Written by: J.K. Rowling (debut)
You didn’t really think Warner Bros. would let a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise vanish just because they were out of novels to adapt, did you? After magically stretching seven books about a boy wizard named Harry Potter into eight hit movies, multiple theme park attractions, and piles of merchandise taller than a stack of coins in a Gringott’s vault, the studio turned to author J.K. Rowling to reach back into the cauldron and conjure up a five-film prequel series based on a slim fictional textbook used in Hogwarts and published for us Muggles in 2001, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Set in 1926, the film focuses on the author of the fictional reference book, world traveler and magical creature wrangler Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way to New York City with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts, including some snake-like dragons with egg shells of silver and a mischievous platypus-looking niffler that can’t help but swipe shiny things. The latter causes trouble when he escapes at a bank, causing Scamander to inadvertently expose a baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who is a No-Maj—the American word for the now-familiar Muggle—to the world of wizardry. This is dangerous, you see, as there are those out to destroy witches and wizards, namely the New Salem organization who wants to them see burned at the stake. Scamander attracts the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Magical Congress of the United States of America (aka MACUSA) agent who attempts to detain Scamander—only for the pair to stumble upon a brewing wizarding war after some magical creature begins murdering No-Majs.
First-time screenwriter Rowling ably expands her “Harry Potter” universe admirably, albeit a tad shakily as the movie first unfurls. The film takes a while to get to know Redmayne’s shy, soft-spoken Scamanader and “Fantastic Beasts” feels a tad adrift until we finally get to see what’s inside of his case. When the hunt begins for Newt’s escaped creatures, “Fantastic Beasts” shimmers to life, juxtaposing the whimsical with the supernaturally dreadful in the way Yates’ later Potter films did so well (when they weren’t being split in two for maximum profits, that is). Prior knowledge of the Potterverse isn’t necessary, and at times the whole affair can feel a little bit like it’s setting the table for the next four films promised in the series—which, after a high-profile cameo at the end of this one, pledge to dive deep into magical warfare. Get your wands ready.