There is an old adage which states you can’t go home. The past is a wilderness of horrors, after all, and to look back on it can only lead to disappointment. That is the type of conventional wisdom that J.K. Rowling and director David Yates are inevitably going to have to fight against with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel of sorts to the beloved Harry Potter franchise. Rowling’s novels, and the Warner Bros. films they spawned (of which Yates directed the final four installments), have touched multiple generations of parents and children, many of whom from the latter group are now having kids of their own.
Yet with Fantastic Beasts, Rowling is stretching her creative god’s eye well past the Boy Who Lived or even his enchanted school. Indeed, Yates and Rowling lived up to their word about doing something different by casting a gaze toward the 1920s, and in New York at that. This really isn’t a prequel or a Harry Potter film at all; it’s a unique adventure in an unexplored region of his world, with its own advantages and, yes, disadvantages too.
To be sure, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an immeasurably entertaining film that, despite a number of faults, will absolutely succeed at bewitching most audiences, particularly the older ones who won’t mind getting mired down into the political monstrosities of early 20th century America (and how in some ways it’s little different from the United States of nearly a hundred years later). But still, you should be warned, this is not Harry Potter.
Fantastic Beasts enjoys only one major English character: its lead, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He’s a curious academic castoff from English wizarding society. Despite being imminently intellectual and enjoying a history of distinguished service during the Great War (he fought against dragons in World War I’s apparently lesser known skirmishes), as well as being a personal favorite contemporary of Albus Dumbledore, Newt has been driven out of Hogwarts and is generally a man without friends. Clearly introverted and exceedingly anti-social, Newt instead prefers the company of magic creatures. This is why he wants to document them while in pursuit of writing the definitive textbook.
Unfortunately, charmed animals are considered suspect in the Wizarding World of 1926, particularly by the Magical Congress of the United States where the common policy is to exterminate these beasts whenever possible. That makes Newt’s arrival in New York all the more urgent since he is chasing an adorable rodent known as the Niffler, a platypus-meets-groundhog that covets gold, jewels, and other sparkly things as if he were a Sean Connery-era Bond villain.
But in truth, the titular fantastic beasts in this film, while omnipresent, are ultimately more of a subplot away from the true interests displayed by Rowling, who is taking on the role of screenwriter for the first time. Very quickly, Newt finds himself wrapped up in a tale of magic segregation, eugenics, and repressed bigotry occurring in American life. He is thus aided in circumventing these issues by meeting a lovable and portly muggle (or “No-Maj,” as they are called in the U.S.) named Jacob (Dan Fogler). Newt and Jacob’s fates become entwined upon accidentally exchanging briefcases. And since Newt’s briefcase is classically British—meaning it’s bigger on the inside, and is also where Newt stores all of his animals in a kind of biological preserve—this becomes quite the issue.
Newt and Jacob’s budding friendship is likewise a point of interest for Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an overlooked working girl in the Magical Congress’ bureaucracy who is convinced Newt’s briefcase is in violation of customs. They similarly catch the eye of Tina’s clairvoyant sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a kind-hearted, cheery flapper in the mold of Clara Bow. Still, once Jacob unintentionally sets free several of Newt’s rare beasties, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a shady investigator for the Congress, also takes interest in them when he isn’t studying several No-Maj on the side. Of special interest in that subplot is Credence (Ezra Miller), the abused son of a cult-like eugenics society, which is desperately working to prove that witches exist in 1920s America, and there needs to be a “New Salem” revival to execute them.
By just trying to lay out the basics of the first act for Fantastic Beasts, it is evident that there are an (over)abundance of plot threads. In fact, while much of Fantastic Beasts differs from Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, it still very much appears novelistic in its approach to world-building. The events of the film take place over a few days, as opposed to a year, and in addition to existing as a period piece, all of the major characters in this film (save for Credence) are adults with much more cynical perspectives on life than the adolescent hopefulness of the earliest Potter movies. Nevertheless, Rowling layers so many of these plot threads throughout the film that they can at times feel like they’re fighting for screen time.
With that said, much of Beasts is a delight when Rowling and Yates find their balance. This is most especially true of the four central characters of Newt, Jacob, and the Goldstein sisters who form a quartet of charming energy reminiscent of romantic pairings from comedies of the 1930s. It is indeed a special kind of magic when Rowling and her leading ladies can blend vague elements of noir with the Haynes sisters. Fogler and Sudol shine particularly brightly as the sidekicks too, both drawing portraits of genuinely sweet people that will endear each performer with a sudden legion of fans.
Redmayne and Waterston are also of course excellent, although Newt is portrayed as so standoffish for most of the film, one wonders if Yates and Redmayne drank too deeply from his introversion at times, because only in one rare instance where he participates in a bizarre mating dance with an Erumpent, a magical half rhino/half-hippo monstrosity, is Redmayne allowed to show Newt fully in his element and felicity.
Moments like that dance are where the movie seduces with a wonderment that should astonish younger audiences and please all others. In several scenes, Newt takes Jacob and the Goldstein sisters inside his briefcase where Rowling and audiences’ imaginations are allowed to take flight. Of seeming infinite space, the briefcase includes multiple habitats that evoke the American West, as well as the arctic, all of which appears to be what Yates wishes a soundstage could do: offer sets that connect to real, full-breathing micro-universes. Hence why the film repeatedly makes welcome excuses for the plot to stop so Newt can go on the hunt for just “one more” escaped beast. And every time it’s magic.
In its heart, however, the movie is really a mystery about discovering the invisible, murderous culprit stalking the streets of Manhattan and slaying wizard and No-Maj alike (while Newt’s beasts unfairly take the blame). It is also here where Farrell and Miller increasingly drive the second and third acts with grim revelations that can be at odds with the wildlife adventure promised in the title. Their scenes may also be quite intense for the youngest moviegoers.
Luckily, Yates utilizes his best skill at world-building throughout the picture. Fantastic Beasts is even perhaps the ultimate showcase for his comfort with Rowling’s novels, as well as his penchant for historical reinvention as seen with this summer’s The Legend of Tarzan. The filmmakers’ passion to really explore the puritanical, repressed paradigm of a supposedly liberated U.S. culture is a constant companion, overshadowing the roaring ‘20s aesthetic some might expect (you will still get a brassy, Gershwin-like rendition of John Williams’ Harry Potter them, though). In this vein, there is a great sense of timeliness to the picture, which marries the magic world to the rise of the scariest element from the 20th century: fascism. Hence why it’s also easy to see why the franchise will now be five films, and where it is heading as Newt and company inevitably make their way back toward Europe and the 1930s.
Rowling’s first screenplay (and the first Potter movie without Harry) can at times be as stuffed as Newt’s luggage. But there is an undeniable ambition and seriousness of purpose that has been woefully missing in blockbuster cinema as of late, even in other recent magic-induced superhero fare. Fantastic Beasts has a lot on its mind and swings for the fences to be a new classic. It might not fully achieve that status, but diehard fans will likely adore it and its familiar Rowling magic, which gently rolls through the 1920s Jazz Age—and toward the darkest of tunnels up ahead.