Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review: Rowling Writes an Infectious Return to Her Wizarding World

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There’s a scene early on in this Harry Potter spinoff/prequel where our new protagonist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) invites Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle, or no-maj in America, inside his suitcase. Descending some stairs into a physics-defying zoo, we’re treated to an extended sequence of pure wonder and imagination. Newt gives Kowalski, and us, a tour, explaining the traits of about a dozen cleverly designed creatures, all while the film infuses them with differing but equally enchanting personalities. My eyes welled up and my smile didn’t waver. “She’s done it again,” I thought.

The film goes on to feature at least two more sequences of brilliant world building that feel familiar enough to what came before, but still strikingly different. One involves a gangster house elf (voiced by Ron Perlman) who owns a pub and the other is set in the Macy’s on 34th Street in Manhattan, where Newt intends to find one of his missing magical beasts. It’s moments like these where having J.K. Rowling as screenwriter, as opposed to the author of the novel the film is adapting, is best felt. David Yates may have directed this entry, his fifth in the franchise, but Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s voice, giving it the feel all of her Harry Potter novels but only a few of the films managed to capture.

This first film in the new series, currently planned to be five total, serves as an introduction to the characters and a reintroduction to the world. Newt arrives in Manhattan in 1926 with the goal of releasing one of his creatures into the wild, but ends up caught in the midst of dark magic bubbling beneath the surface of the American magical government. A few of his creatures are accidentally released and it’s his job to wrangle them up. Newt is joined on his mission by former Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Kowalski, the non-magical character that somehow almost steals the film.

But naturally, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t just get to be a film about wizards trying to capture a mixture of adorable and intimidating beasts. There’s a five-movies series to set up, and that’s where the film runs into some trouble, just as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone did when it became about anything other than being new to Hogwarts. There’s an entirely separate plot thread involving an officer of magical law enforcement (Colin Farrell) and a sheltered teenager scared of what he might be (Ezra Miller) that doesn’t really intersect with Newt’s quest until it’s time to wrap things up. This separate thread has a lot of interesting implications on Rowling’s world, as well as some welcomes surprises and darkness, but it also divides the film in two. With introductions out of the way, it’s likely, given Rowling’s track record, that she’ll go on to write stronger, more cohesive sequels. But for now, this is a flaw that sticks out in this young new series.

Sadly, it’s not the only one. While most of the characters get their time to shine, Tina is a weak spot, which is no fault to Katherine Waterston, but the script itself. For a franchise featuring so many unwaveringly strong women, Tina’s underdevelopment is something of a surprise. It’s made worse by the film’s overblown and unjustified romances, which disappointingly take the place of the Potter series’ strong themes of friendship. Imagine Ron and Hermione starting to date before years of friendship build them up to it. Still, Rowling is too savvy a writer for their not to be interesting complications as the series evolves, but going on what we have here, these aspects of the film are an obvious weakness.

But none of that stops Fantastic Beasts from being infectious with its classic Potter tone, here applied to new corners of Rowling’s world. Some of the scenes mentioned above are the most delightful and fun of any blockbuster or film in general this year. After Hollywood has delivered so many disappointing prequels to wildly popular franchises, Potterheads and breathe a sigh of relief. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a worthwhile return to this wonderful, magical world. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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