Ten billion dollars. No, that’s not a line from the inevitable Austin Powers remake/reboot. That’s the amount the Harry Potter franchise made for Warner Bros. during an extremely lucrative run over the better part of a decade. Even after the last two-part entry in the series came and went – and with it the heightened Potter mania that inevitably accompanied each release – it was abundantly clear that Warner Bros. wasn’t done with Harry Potter and neither was its core audience. With writer J.K. Rowling and director David Yates both back onboard, less cynical moviegoers could hope that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them wasn’t just another shameless cash grab, but a welcome return to the deeply imagined world- and universe-building that made the Harry Potter series so addictive in the first place. We won’t keep you in suspense any longer: Minus one or two minor issues, it’s the best we can and should hope for from a prequel/spin-off.
Set, like the Harry Potter series, in a parallel universe both remarkable similar and uniquely different from our own, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces the series’ new star and central character, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a one-time Hogwarts student turned world-traveling crypto-zoologist, as he enters New York City through Ellis Island, circa 1926, for the first time. It’s 1926 and the war, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, still casts a lengthy shadow, both in Newt’s past (he fought on the Eastern Front, with dragons no less), and his soon-to-be-friend and fellow traveler, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a war veteran eager to start his own business, a bakery. Their paths cross at a local bank. Without collateral, Kowalski’s dream goes exactly nowhere, while Scamander, visiting New York for vaguely revealed reasons, inadvertently lets loose a magically empowered creature in the bank. Almost immediately, chaos breaks out, with Scamander breaking the No-Maj (Muggle) rule: He gives Kowalski more than a glimpse at the world of magic and wizardry.
Segregation between wizards and humans isn’t just the norm in 1926 America: The Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) keeps a tight lid on human-wizard interactions, prohibiting them outright, and compelling wizards who inadvertently break the law to erase the minds of humans who might have seen or heard too much. Trouble is, there’s a creature of some kind, possibly related to Scamander’s traveling menagerie, causing all kinds of damage and non-wizards are starting to notice. Almost just as quickly, Scamander comes into contact with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an employee of the MACUSA’s wizarding enforcement division, for bringing unsanctioned possibly dangerous animals into New York. Goldstein’s efforts to bring Scamander’s activities to her superiors fall on death ears, however. There’s more than a hint of the casual and non-casual sexism typical of the first quarter of the last century, though her relatively low status is the result of an over-zealous investigation into anti-wizarding zealots and their leader, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton).
Scamander’s magically empowered animals maybe more nuisance than threat, however, though the head of MACUSA’s enforcement division, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), an Auror with a severe haircut and authoritarian, possibly supremacist tendencies (he’s tired of hiding in the shadows and wants wizards to out themselves and take their rightful, superior place in world affairs), feels differently. Graves proves true to his name, but Rowling and Yates take pains, at least initially, to make his point of view, his worldview, appear both rational and well intentioned. His ambiguous relationship with Mary Lou’s troubled adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller), more than suggests Graves may have an agenda that runs counter to Scamander and Goldstein’s goals. Scamander’s interests don’t extend beyond his pro-conservation stance. Goldstein proves more difficult to pin down. Initially, she wants to repair her flailing career, but once she begins to spend time with Scamander, Kowalski, and her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), in pursuit of Scamander’s missing creatures, her views begin to soften toward Scamander and his worldview.
By this point, Rowling and Yates are old pros at the world-building exposition game. Despite a running time well over two hours, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them rarely feels overlong or overstuffed, minus unfortunately, a CGI-heavy finale that feels like every CGI-heavy finale we’ve seen this year from Warner Bros. (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad), Disney/Marvel (Doctor Strange), or the Ghostbusters remake this past summer. Rowling and Yates balance introducing new characters and world building with a deftness and dexterity missing from far too many franchise wannabes. Not surprisingly, Rowling and Yates’ worldview ultimately favors inclusion, tolerance, and compassion, both for the immensely colorful animals in Scamander’s magical suitcase (it literally leads to an entirely new world) rather than the opposite, values that often feel like they’re in short supply, in or out of film.
The Harry Potter series benefited hugely from one of the best casts in or out of franchise filmmaking and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows that trend. Eddie Redmayne seems to have cornered the market in playing quirky, eccentric characters. His Scamander is something of an introvert, more interested in his magical menagerie than interacting with people, wizards or humans. His character arc doesn’t go far (i.e., from outsider-introvert to city-saving hero), but it’s more than enough to sustain the first entry in a proposed five-entry series. The supporting cast performs just as ably. Rowling and Yates are quick to make Tina Scamander’s equal and not just a potential romantic interest. Both Fogler and Sudol sweetly underplay their burgeoning (illegal) relationship. When she asks, “Are all N-Majs like you?” and he responds, half-jokingly, half-deprecatingly, “There’s no like me,” it brings into relief one of Rowling’s central strengths as a writer: Her respect for her characters. They’re not just mere props or fictional devices to move her often tangled, convoluted plots forward, but fully rounded characters who mirror their real-world counterparts in their hopes, dreams, and desires.