You may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.
Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.
For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan.
Newt’s arrival in America, for which he’s travelling with a suitcase full of odd, magical beasts with the intention of setting one free in the wild, comes at an inopportune moment. Something beyond man has been terrorizing New York, threatening to expose the wizarding community of America to the no-maj’s (“In England we call them ‘Muggles,’ Newt says with a wry grin). A former Aurer named Tina (Katherine Waterston) apprehends Newt and tries to wrangle the mysterious creature in an attempt to win her job back.
The story can stand on its own, a fascinating magical safari and charming fish out of water story as Newt drags along a portly, bulbous New Yorker non-maj named Kowalski (Dan Fogler). But as in Harry Potter, Rowling’s screenplay has veiled allusions to the country’s fractured racial dynamic. In a conversation, Newt suggests that the relationship between non-magical people and wizards is so poor that the two parties can’t even interact, let alone get married. It’s a part of the subtext rather than a substantial plot point. Perhaps some might value a movie that’s more socially conscious, but it speaks to the world building strengths of Rowling, who’s capable of imagining a wizarding world outside of England both culturally and creatively.
“Fantastic Beasts” may even rely on Rowling’s inventiveness as too much of a crutch. Newt at one point takes Kowalski his suitcase, climbing down as though on an infinite ladder, to find a glorious menagerie of magical creatures. Many of these creatures resemble actual animals with a few more tentacles or legs, but others are wholly original. This scene continues for a long while, and their cuteness and whimsy amount for much of the film’s appeal.
Where Rowling’s source material was the high point of the Potter franchise, “Fantastic Beasts” may be similarly lacking due to its director, David Yates. He directed the last four Potter movies, casting them in muted colors and playing up the story’s realism while allowing the special effects to take center stage. With “Fantastic Beasts” he had an opportunity to stretch his wings and make these films belong to a different universe, at the very least aesthetically. But the bursts of light from wands and almost documentary style filmmaking are a safer nod to fans of the original franchise.
Shortly before the release of this film, what was originally charted as three movies has now expanded to five. And though “Fantastic Beasts” remains part of a larger story, the allusions to Harry Potter’s plot line are minimal, and this first film gets neatly tied up such that Rowling can globe trot the world at will. Where will we find “Fantastic Beasts” next?
3 ½ stars