The humans are more fantastic than the titular beasts in this mostly satisfying, multi-layered fantasy.
They Come to America
It’s a prequel to the Harry Potter series and creator J.K. Rowling has already announced Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will itself expand into a five-movie series. Wizards cheer. Muggles say, “Wha?”
The action starts in 1920s New York City. That’s quite the tumultuous epoch; the world is in recovery from the War to End All Wars and Prohibition is in full swing in the U.S., with the Great Depression about to engulf the nation.
Visually, the time and place offer a terrific treat. Thematically, there are loads of possibilities, with Rowling indicating the five movies (all to be directed by David Yates, a Harry Potter veteran) will span 19 years of world-altering history. That’ll take the characters into the 1940s, roughly around the end of World War II.
Those characters — not the CGI, not the beasts, not even the magic — are the glue that hold the story together.
A Different War
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a book referenced within the Harry Potter series; it’s required reading for Harry and his fellow students. Its author is magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables) and the action picks up with Newt arriving in New York, on a mission to return some of the fantastic beasts to their natural habitat. He’s got them stashed away in his Tardis-like suitcase.
There’s an undercurrent running through the story, one familiar to Harry Potter as well. It’s the conflict between wizards and Muggles. (In America, Muggles are referred to as “No-Maj.” No magic.) It’s become a popular riff in the comic book/graphic novel world: the good deeds of the wizards/superheroes notwithstanding, the magical ones are dangerous to broader society and need to be reined in.
In that setting, speakeasies take on a new tone as wizards hold their underground societies. Thrown in the mix is a likable bloke named Jacob Kowalski (TV’s The Goldbergs). He’s a No-Maj and he’s also one of the best parts of the movie; sucked into this strange, magical world, he’s relatable and charming and a sort of buffer to Newt’s awkwardness. His charm shines most in the midst of fine cooking (he wants to own his own bakery) and the company of two female wizards, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol, Between Us) and Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Steve Jobs).
This foursome turns out to be a formidable and compelling set of protagonists as they take on dark forces lurking in New York City.
Fantastic Beasts is the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling, based on her own 2009 book (attributed to Newt) that sits in the sprawling literary collection of her wizarding world. She’s done well here, and has certainly set the stage for some wondrous things to come.
The tricky part is the fantastic beasts themselves are in many ways a mere distraction. James Newton Howard’s score hits full force, as if trying to reassure audiences the beasties are indeed fantastical. But the CGI doesn’t quite keep up with the times. That’s not to say the Harry Potter movies have been a showcase of topflight effects. There’ve certainly been plenty of seamlessly-executed scenes, but there’s also plenty of cheese in those original movie adventures. And the cheese continues here.
That criticism’s not to be taken as all-out derision. The ideas behind the effects are indeed imaginative and boundary-pushing, but the execution is at times disappointing.
Even so, Fantastic Beasts works its magic and performs one significant trick other movies have not been able to pull off this year: The more it’s thought about, the better it settles in the mind.