beastsDirector: David Yates

Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller

There is little debate that the Harry Potter book and film franchise are the paradigm of pop culture success. Rarely does “lightening” strike twice, but if there were a wizard who could do it, it would be J.K. Rowling. The first film in her Potter spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, pulses with the awe, beauty, and excitement of the original films and opens an entirely new chapter in the longevity and impact these characters will have on us for years to come.

Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, an English wizard fixated on magical and enchanted animals, and his efforts to study these creatures take him to America. Scamander is also writing a book detailing these animals. These “fantastic beasts” were not always as celebrated by the magical community as they were when a young boy named Harry Potter read about them in his Care of Magical Creatures class 70 years after the setting of this film. Yes, in 1926 these animals were villainized and terribly misunderstood; Scamander hopes to change that perception with his book. Scamander keeps his menagerie inside of an enchanted brief case that acts as a portal to an immense zoological park where he cares for and studies these animals. When this brief case is mixed up with that of a no-maj (the American word for muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), things obviously get out of hand, and magical creatures are inadvertently set loose all over New York City. This draws the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an officer of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, who desires to apprehend Scamander and bring him in. Meanwhile, a subversive extremist group of no-majs led by Mary-Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) wants to rid the world of witchcraft, causing even more trouble for Scamander, his animals, and all of wizarding kind.

Summing up the plots to this film is actually a very tall order. There are many moving parts in the storyline, but Rowling does an outstanding job of weaving together an entirely new mythology that of course will give way to the Potter-era material. It also doesn’t hurt to basically have the crew responsible for the previous four Potter films including director, David Yates back for this film. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

One of the most cited components to the Harry Potter series’s success is that the content grows with the characters (and the audience). It’s no longer any kind of secret that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first in a planned five-film series, so it figures that the same progression of sensibilities will take effect. With only the first film to analyze, I think Yates and Rowling strike the perfect initial tone here. There is a childlike, Dr. Doolittle innocence to Scamander and his animals, but that it balanced well with an emerging sense of darkness and danger. The most important factor to this film’s success, however may be Fogler’s turn as the clownish, Kowalski, a no-maj who due to certain circumstances is brought along for the ride. Rowling crafts Kowalski to act as our “Dante” being guided by Scamander’s Virgil through a wizarding Inferno, and it works! His scenes steal the show and likely will cause you to reach for that hanky in the final act.

If there is one thing to pick at with this film, it is that the climax of the film, while effective does have one, shall we say, “component”  that completely took me out of the movie. It remains to be seen if that “component” will be worthwhile down the line, but I am worried about it. That “component” aside, Potter-philes can rest assured; Rowling has done it again, and I can’t wait to see where things go from here! A-

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 13 minutes.