When the Harry Potter saga reached the end of its eight-movie run in 2011, only a Muggle would have predicted that we’d heard the last from J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry. Never mind the obsessive fandom that the novels and films inspired, they were also seriously big business. As cinematic franchises go, only the Marvel movies have raked in more money.
So here we are, five years later, with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Given the nominal source material — an imaginary textbook Rowling published in 2001 to complement the “Harry Potter” novels — it would be easy to dismiss the film as a product of financial rather than creative necessity. But with the author herself penning the screenplay and “Harry Potter” series veteran David Yates back in the director’s chair, the movie already has more integrity than any of this year’s other franchise flicks.
It’s tremendous fun, too. Rather than opting for a conventional prequel, sequel or (shudder) reboot, “Fantastic Beasts” delves back in time and shifts the action to the other side of the Atlantic. Rowling has a luxury that Steve Kloves, who scripted all but one of the “Harry Potter” movies, was never granted: She gets a well-established universe to play in, without the responsibility of condensing a 600-page novel’s worth of narrative.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||133 mins|
The hero of the story is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an eccentric “magizoologist” who arrives in Prohibition-era New York toting a suitcase full of magical critters that he’s collected during his travels around the world. When the beasts escape following an accidental switcheroo, Scamander sets out to recover them with help from Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an official from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, along with Tina’s flirty sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and a factory worker who gets caught in the fray, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
They’re an appealing crew, Redmayne in particular. With his Doctor Who-style overcoat and permanently rumpled appearance, he wears the awkward look of someone who isn’t used to spending much time in the company of other humans. He’s on surer ground with his fantastical menagerie, which ranges from a platypus-like creature with an addiction to pilfering shiny objects to a hulking rhinoceros with a glowing brain that, in one of the film’s best scenes, he has to perform a mating ritual with.
These capers take place against a more ominous backdrop, involving a dark wizard who hopes to foment war with the nonmagical world, and a clan of puritanical witch hunters calling themselves the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Meanwhile, a violent supernatural force is wreaking havoc on the streets of New York, yielding a couple of scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in a Sam Raimi horror.
Rowling has been a prominent online commentator in recent years, speaking out against Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. While advance reports made much of how “Fantastic Beasts” was inspired by rising xenophobia and populism, this doesn’t come through so strongly in the film. The tension between the magical and nonmagical communities was already a recurrent theme in the “Harry Potter” films, and the politics of “Fantastic Beasts” are no weightier than what you’d get from an “X-Men” movie.
There’s an occasional shagginess to the storytelling, too: Threads are left dangling, and a side plot involving a newspaper baron (Jon Voight) and his politician son goes nowhere. Perhaps all will be revealed in subsequent installments? Rowling recently announced that there are a further four films planned, covering backstory that was hinted at in her novels. That should be manna for Potter maniacs, but even the staunchest agnostic will be able to enjoy the giddy escapism of “Fantastic Beasts.”
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