As controversial a thought as this might be, Harry Potter was holding back the wizard world that J.K. Rowling created. The most interesting thing about her novels and subsequent films was never the kids themselves, but the entire notion of a magical world running parallel to our own. With FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, screenwriter Rowling finally gets to cut loose and explore the outer reaches of that world.
The setup takes us far from the confines of Hogwarts, with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) stopping off in New York in 1926. When his suitcase full of magical creatures gets mixed up with that of non-magical human (“no-mag”) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an affable cannery worker and wannabe baker, the critters are let loose across the city. Demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) attempts to take Newt into custody, but together the trio uncovers a bigger plot involving high-ranking auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Mary Lou Barebone (Samnatha Morton), a no-mag intent on exposing the hidden witches.
The surface level themes of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM are fairly straightforward, but Rowling (unsubtly) works in a few welcome pieces of sub-commentary about marriage equality, repression of identity, and the one-percenters making decisions in the shadows. It’s just a shame that the film also misses a major opportunity, once again filling its front lines with the expected Anglo-American character tropes, unrequited love stories and broad farce.
The 1920 aesthetic works wonders for Rowling’s magical world, eliminating some of the tweeness that permeated the British private school world of Hogwarts. Redmayne, already established as the go-to young Brit for American audiences, slips effortlessly into the lead role, with Fogler a welcome comedic addition to bumble behind him. Waterston is wonderful, feeling for all the world like she’s actually just stepped out of a period film to fast-talk her way into the narrative. Nods to the Harry Potter films are thankfully passing, but there’s still plenty of Easter eggs for the faithful.
FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM comes unravelled a bit in its attempts to establish all the pieces necessary for the broader series, especially the final act reveal that may cause giggles in equal doses with gasps. Yet the film brings some magic and mystery back into Rowling’s world, drawing a distinct point of difference between its child-oriented forebears and the future of the franchise, recalling the wonder its intended audience felt back in whatever decade their childhood cinematic imagination was formed.