As the first entry in the new prequel/spinoff series to the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has to juggle the establishment of new, interesting characters, a different period and setting in the wizarding world, a plot that sets up a five-film franchise and satisfies the audiences high expectations. With such a weighty task, it actually accomplishes all this pretty admirably, if not spectacularly. Out of all the difficult promises it has to keep, only one can be fairly said to have been broken, but it is one worth mentioning: where are all the Fantastic Beasts?
We start in 1920’s New York, with the arrival of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his magical luggage, containing a whole menagerie of magical creatures. After a mix up with hapless factory worker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) an accidental magical break in at the New York bank, and a night spent with two young witches Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) that this unlikely band realisez they have unwittingly unleashed several of the creatures on the city. This lands the group in deep trouble with the MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the USA, and earns them the particular ire of the head legal enforcer Percival Graves, played by a surprisingly sinister Colin Farrell.
If this is all sounding like an excuse to get a fantastical period piece version of Pokemon Go started, well, that’s what I assumed at first. But surprisingly, there is a second plotline that is just as strongly developed. There is tension in the American magical community, as news of terror attacks, perpetrated by the dark wizard Grindlewald, comes daily, keeping Graves very busy and on edge in his duties. Meanwhile, more ire is brought on by the New Salem society, a group of religious fundamentalists led by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who believes witches roam the streets and must be purged to protect the people. Her persona at home isn’t any better; she has taken in several orphan children whom she bullies and beats with no remorse, most notably the slightly mysterious Credence (Ezra Miller) a young man whom has captured the interest of Percival Graves, who thinks this boy could somehow prove useful in the wizarding worlds struggles…
Ultimately, the combination of JK Rowling as a screenwriter and David Yates as a director helps the film capture both the world building of the early Potter films and the mature atmosphere of the latter ones. There is, admittedly, a sense of missed opportunity with things. The playful whimsy of the beast hunt is overshadowed by the rush to bring in elements of Grindelwald and his conquests, to the point the adventure described in the title almost feels like a subplot. Personally, I also feel that Graves is a bit overdone – I would have liked him better as aa villain in the style of Inspector Javert from Les Miserables, ruthless in methods but sincere of principle, as opposed to an overtly wicked schemer. There is a subplot with an aspiring US senator egged on by his media peddling father (Jon Voight, of all people) that has no real impact on the plot and could have been cut entirely.
But the film hits the right notes in the places where it counts, and is at its best when it remembers to enjoy itself – the scene inside the magical luggage actually rivals the first unveiling of Hogwarts in The Philosophers Stone in terms of the wonder it evokes. Keep an open eye for future films, Warner Brothers may yet have another big hit on its hands.