Aw, I wanna be a wizard...
It's been a long five years since the Harry Potter franchise bowed out, and many of us are primed and ready for another chance to peek into J.K. Rowling's uncommonly well-realized wizarding world. I don't think many people expect Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be an equal match for its parent franchise, so Fantastic Beasts really doesn't. The film's creation is convoluted as hell, but it's also kind of fascinating. Rather than being based on an existing story, it follows the adventures of a wizard who wrote a textbook called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the Harry Potter universe, referenced occasionally by the characters. So it's essentially the story behind a book within a book. However, none of that is important for full enjoyment of the film, which stands on its own as a fun, quirky trip.
Imperfect understanding is often more dangerous than ignorance.
The story is appropriately lightweight, but Rowling's darker tendencies make sure seep through now and again. In 1926, a wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) from Britain arrives in New York City with a suitcase filled with dozens of incredible magical creatures. Naturally, after a suitcase mix-up with a non-magical prospective baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the creatures escape and cause chaos among the ignorant New Yorkers (called "no-majs" by the wizards). A former Auror (basically the magic police) named Tina (Katherine Waterston) arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard, but the President (Carmen Ejogo) has more pressing matters to worry about. No-majs have been suspicious of magical activity, an unseen entity has been causing damage, and the dark wizard Grindelwald is on the loose. Meanwhile, Newt, Kowalski, Tina, along with her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) search the city for the titular fantastic beasts while avoiding the shifty Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
What makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you, Mr. Scamander?
It's nice to see David Yates back in the director's chair after helming the entire second half of the Potter series, and he brings back his grounded sensibilities while thankfully adding a touch of whimsy to keep things fun. Fantastic Beasts is a good example of a movie that knows what it is, rather than one built on cliches and preoccupied with delivering fan service. There are references to Harry Potter lore, but the story doesn't linger on them. The strengths of the film lie in the character interactions, with Kowalski and Queenie's relationship standing chief among them. The creatures themselves don't disappoint, each given a distinctive personality and very cool design. I naturally would have preferred to see more practical effects, which tend to hold up better over time. It's an important factor when you want your movie to feel timeless, which Fantastic Beasts most definitely does. The period piece setting is a lot of fun, and the screenplay's lack of modern snark lends the movie charm and likability.
New York is considerably more interesting than expected.
I think likable is the best way to describe the movie as a whole. It has a bit of exciting action (moments of camera-swooping that recall the opening shot of Half-Blood Prince are actually amazing), but the movie sails mostly on moments of awe and the joy of discovery. So much of how the world works is shown to us rather than explained, with the first look into Newt's suitcase shining as the standout moment of the film. Connection to the main characters is easy, though I will say that Waterston's performance as Tina felt a little wooden. If there was supposed to be any kind of romance between her and Newt, I certainly didn't feel it. As for the villain's story, I haven't made up my mind about whether or not I liked it. It's a touch confusing to be honest, so hopefully subsequent viewings will be kind to it. Additionally, there's a late twist involving Graves that wasn't tied to the main story enough to really resonate.
Hey! Mr. English Guy! I think you're egg is hatched...
Fantastic Beasts is funny, warm, and pretty much everything I hoped it would be. We finally get to see Rowling's world from a new perspective, in a new country, and with new characters that are focused on completely different issues than the characters in the Harry Potter series. A great bit of world-building comes in the way social norms among the magical community differ between England and America, specifically when it comes to house elf slavery and marriage between no-majs and wizards. It's all very captivating, as expected. As a visual experience, there's plenty to love (though a bit more vibrancy wouldn't have hurt), and the characters are endearing and well-developed. As for being the start of a new franchise? I don't know, it felt good enough to stand on its own. I won't begrudge Warner Bros. for trying to milk their franchise, but I will never forgive them if they screw it up. They're off to a good start, but Rowling is clearly the key to making it all work. As long as Rowling and producer David Heyman stay as involved and enthusiastic as they seemed to be on this project, here's hoping that good times lie ahead.