No Harry Potter, no problem.
J.K. Rowling’s magical world gets a retro spinoff with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (*** out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday, with previews Thursday night), and thankfully no death spells are in order. Director David Yates’ entertaining introduction of awkward hero and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a confident and surprisingly funny adventure that’s more charming than most of the eight Harry Potter films.
The story is set in New York circa 1926, where Newt has arrived on a mission involving a rare magical creature — his specialty. He has a zoo full of crazy critters in his suitcase (it's much bigger on the inside), but after a run-in with No-Maj (aka non-magical) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a bunch get loose that they have to wrangle.
Anti-wizard sentiment is on the rise, and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former investigator with the Magical Congress of the United States of America, hauls Newt in to quell a possible conflict between wizards and the No-Maj community. However, they soon find themselves on the same side — with Jacob and Tina’s witch sister Queenie along for the ride — when a powerful mysterious force threatens the city more than one of Newt’s cute animals.
Like most franchise-starting vehicles, Fantastic Beasts tries to do way too much in two hours. In addition to Newt’s wild kingdom, a grassroots group of Second Salemers are trying to stir up trouble for the magic folk — with shy member Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) meeting secretly with manipulative MACUSA security man Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) — not to mention the bigger threat freaking out everybody, the mostly unseen dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald.
Wizarding is serious business and some of the darker scenes seem inconsistent with the film’s lighthearted nature. Rowling’s screenplay, adapted from a short Potter “textbook,” emphasizes gags and set pieces more than strong characterization, though she conjures some engaging relationships.
There are heavier themes afoot, including tolerance and inequality: wizards resent having to hide their powers, while spellcasting gals aren't allowed to fraternize with No-Maj guys. But Beasts leans more into capturing the imagination and wonder that made the Potter franchise special to so many, particularly with the Newt/Jacob dynamic.
Redmayne’s character is wholly eccentric, Jacob is a lovable schlub, and their friendship fuels much of the movie as they desperately try to round up a jewelry-loving, scene-stealing Niffler and Newt does a ridiculously goofy mating dance to lure the giant rhino-like Erumpent into his luggage.
The various beasts are, true to the title, fantastic from a visual effects standpoint, and the overall production design is top notch, leaving viewers wanting to see more of this vintage place where secret agents pair wands with their fedoras.
Rowling’s fans have much to love in terms of Easter eggs, familiar names being mentioned in conversation, and enough seeding of material to leave them salivating for a sequel. (Also, yes, Johnny Depp shows up and he splendidly fits right in with the over-the-top goings-on.) But whether you’re a Potterhead or not, Beasts creates a story that’s both original and enchanting.