J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a delightful and charming if imperfect movie with wondrous creatures, lovable characters, and the same dazzling magic that made us fall in love with the Harry Potter world in the first place.
Fantastic Beasts tells the story of magizoologist Newt Scamander, who arrives in New York with a case full of magical creatures. A case that is accidentally opened, letting its inhabitants loose and sending Newt and his new allies on an adventure to find the titular fantastic beasts. At the same time, a mysterious dark force is wreaking havoc in the city, threatening to expose the magical community and start a war with the non-magical world.
If there’s a flaw to Fantastic Beasts, it’s the dissonance between those two parallel but mostly unrelated and tonally different narratives. The two plot threads overlap and eventually intersect when the magical creatures are accused of causing the dark force’s mayhem, pulling Newt into the other, larger narrative halfway through the movie. But even then they feel like two stories that cross paths rather than coming together seamlessly.
Luckily, Fantastic Beasts manages to make up for its structural issues.
One of the film’s biggest successes is the charming cast of main characters. From the eccentric Newt Scamander, excellently portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, to down-to-Earth ex-Auror Tina Goldstein and her chirpy Legilimens sister, Queenie. Even the magical creatures are characters in their own right, like the clingy Bowtruckle or the adorable and hilarious Niffler that stole every scene it was in.
But the heart of the main cast is Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj (a.k.a. Muggle) who is accidentally drawn into the Wizarding World. He acts as the audience surrogate, reacting with awe and wonder at the magic around him, as well as the comic relief. And comedian Fogler nails both the humour and Jacob’s endearing likeability and sweetness.
On the darker side of things, Colin Farrell excels as the charismatic yet menacing Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves. Also notable is Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, a reclusive boy raised by a zealous anti-witch adoptive mother. With Credence, Fantastic Beasts comes very close to making a metaphor for repressed teenagers and fanatical parents, but doesn’t quite go all the way.
Another one of Fantastic Beasts‘s strengths, and a treat for Harry Potter fans, is its imagination and world-building. The fantastic beasts themselves do not disappoint, not just in design but also in creative magical attributes. I was delighted to see creatures I’d only read about, like the size-changing Occamy, the often-invisible Demiguise, and the majestic, weather-changing Thunderbird. The sequence that takes place inside Newt’s suitcase/natural preserve is a standout.
Fantastic Beasts is also an excellent expansion of the Wizarding World, showing us both a new location and time period of the magical community. It adds elements to the existing mythology, often contrasting them with what we know from Harry Potter. The Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) is an example of this, drawing comparisons to the Ministry of Magic yet dazzling in its own right. But Rowling also takes familiar elements and puts a different spin on them in this new environment, with ideas like house-elf bartenders or a goblin gangster (played by Ron Perlman). In that regard, Newt Scamander is as much of an audience stand-in for Harry Potter fans seeing this fresh side of the magical world as Jacob Kowalski is to newcomers unfamiliar with it.
Between the rich, detailed world, the creativity, the creatures, the characters’ quirks and even their names, this movie has J. K. Rowling written all over it. Fans of hers will recognize and delight at her trademark voice. It’s also clear that this is her first script, as indicated by the aforementioned dissonant narrative and the slightly uneven pacing. But for a first attempt at a new medium, Fantastic Beasts is a worthy effort by the beloved novelist.
Fans will also find plenty of tidbits to dissect and speculate about in anticipation for the sequel. Though Fantastic Beasts works surprisingly well as a standalone adventure, it also lays the groundwork for the future. By the end of the film the trajectory of this series begins to take shape, reassuring us that maybe five movies isn’t stretching it too thin after all. Time will tell how the story will grow, but for now I am happy to slip back into the Wizarding World like a warm, familiar blanket.