There are few things more impressive than the imagination of J.K. Rowling, and it’s on full display in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Harry Potter author-turned-screenwriter has begun an exciting new chapter in her wizarding world, set 70 years before the Potter story starts (and in America), and it very nearly reaches the heights of those stories.
Besides its new setting, Fantastic Beasts marks another first for Rowling—it’s her first screenplay for one of her stories, and as such the movie suffers from issues any first-time screenwriter might encounter, namely pacing and narrative structure. Things take a long time to really come together, the second act drags, and the story sometimes feels minor compared to the on-screen visuals. Problems like these could have easily hurt a film, but here, you’re so blown away by the film’s wonder, characters, and effects, you’re likely to cut it some slack.
Eddie Redmayne plays the film’s hero, Newt Scamander, an unassuming, quirky wizard who comes to New York from England with a suitcase filled with magical creatures for unknown reasons. Newt is almost instantly noticed by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror who now works in the wand permit office at the American version of the Ministry of Magic called MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America).
When some of Newt’s magical creatures escape and start rampaging through New York City, causing some serious problems, the two are forced to work together to solve the beastly problems, which leads to a bigger mystery.
Issues notwithstanding, the main word that comes to mind to describe Fantastic Beasts is “Wow.” In seemingly every scene, Rowling and director David Yates (he of the final four Potter films) give the audience creativity and adventure that’s second to none. The creatures are incredibly cool and interesting, and each plays a very specific, important role. The action scenes are sprawling and inventive. Every shot is jam-packed with neat, fun little details that will reward repeat viewing. You’ll be amazed at how dark things get (there are executions and scenes of child abuse in this movie, literally). And the references to the Harry Potter books are sprinkled lightly across the film in just the right amount so that fans will smile and ponder while non-fans (do those exist?) won’t notice or be distracted by them. Lots and lots about Fantastic Beasts works like magic, and that’s important to remember.
Unfortunately, after quickly setting things up, the film becomes a series of several mindless scenes where Newt and his companions chase the beasts of the title. To be fair, through the eye of Yates those visuals are formidable, and Rowling fills these scenes with some truly original, weird events, but up to the movie’s halfway point it’s almost entirely focused on fantasy beasts and action instead of a coherent plot. (For example, there’s a weird Jon Voight newspaper subplot that never quite pays off.)
Eventually, though, everyone agrees they have to stop a mysterious force that’s loose in New York City, one that involves most of the other supporting characters. There’s Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves, an Auror with a mean streak. There’s Ezra Miller as Credence, an introverted orphan whose adopted mother (Samantha Morton) is leading a group of non-magical people in a witch hunt. Then there are the other two lead heroes: Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister and a mind-reader at MACUSA; and Jacob (Dan Fogler), a Muggle—exxcuse me, No-Maj—who’s in love with Queenie, but also desperately wants a more exciting life than his current one as a baker. Together, they add a small but potent romantic subplot to the film, as well as a lot of emotion.
If that makes it sound like there’s a lot going on in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s true. The movie is stuffed to a point where there’s no way you could digest it all in one viewing. But while the film’s many storylines, characters, and references can feel daunting and confusing at times, Rowling eventually pulls most of the strands to come together in a surprising and satisfying way.
Much of that simply come from the performances of the four lead characters, who are charming and captivating. Redmayne, in particular, makes some very peculiar choices with Newt. He walks with a limp, talks very softly, and his posture is terrible, yet somehow the actor manages to make all of these quirks endearing to the audience. Waterston is pretty down-the-middle as Tina, but the film needs her as a voice of reason and normalcy. Fogler is wide-eyed and relatable playing the audience surrogate, as we get introduced to this new era of the wizard world through his eyes. Sudol has the exact kind of bubbly, fun energy you expect from Rowling’s world.
There are a few other minor gripes throughout the film: Simple logic things, an ending that goes on a little too long, a climactic battle that’s pretty familiar when juxtaposed with the rest of the film. But I was so enamored with this world and these characters, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see more.
I’ll certainly get my wish, as Rowling wants to make four more of these films and I am all for it. Flaws aside, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proves that you don’t need Harry Potter to tell a gripping, wonderful story in the wizarding world.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens November 18.