It’s dizzying to think 15 years have passed since the opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and 19 since the debut of the J.K. Rowling novel that inspired it. Since then, the globe has gleefully embraced all things Harry Potter, including theatrical productions inspired by its wizarding world, the breadth of Pottermore, and a sprawling theme park. So it’s no surprise that Rowling and Warner Bros, who enjoyed gargantuan success with the eight-film franchise, would aspire to create a spinoff…or five.
I’ll admit, I thought basing a new string of adventures on the Rowling-penned fictional textbook Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them was a ludicrous idea that reeked of desperation. But I underestimated this author turned first-time screenwriter immensely. This sensational spinoff not only feels like a fresh angle on the magical world we think we know so well, but also takes into account how the young adults who first found these books and movies have grown, and may be craving something more sophisticated that they can share with their kids.
Academy Award-winner Eddie Redmayne stars as magizoologist Newt Scamander, an English wizard who’s been traveling the world, collecting magical creatures for conservation in his seemingly ordinary suitcase. The Hufflepuff who openly admits he annoys people has only begun drafting the tome that will decades later be a Hogwarts requirement. Here, he’s in his late twenties, awkward and–save for his eccentric animals–alone in New York, at the height of Jazz Age glamour and underground crime. Thankfully, fate–in the form of a gold-greedy rodent–introduces him to some American misfits: disgraced auror Porpetina Goldstein (a steely but intriguing Katherine Waterston), her telepathic sister Queenie (the daffy and delightful Alison Sudol), and a muggle baker named Jacob Kowalski (the outright hilarious Dan Fogler). Together this fetching foursome race about Manhattan rounding up the beasts who’ve snuck out of Scamander’s case, while investigating the deadly dark cloud causing chaos and threatening to out the secret society of American witches and wizards.
Punctuated with outlandish action sequences, cute creatures, and slapstick comedy, the chasing critters angle is deceptively simple stuff that is sure to tickle kids. But grown-ups won’t be immune to the charms of its easy humor and the dedicatedly detailed CGI creations who are granted an incredible authenticity from Redmayne and his co-stars’ earnest interactions. From there, Rowling slathers the story in the nostalgic sex appeal of the 1920s, setting scenes in goblin-run speakeasies, draping characters in gorgeous glad rags (designed by the incomparable Colleen Atwood), and marinating the whole affair in an old-Hollywood style flair, vibrant in whimsy, and complete with a warm and flirtatious romance between Fantastic Beast‘s sweet sex kitten Queenie and its lovable schmo Kowalski.
Where Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them loses its way is when it guns hard to set up those drama-driven sequels we’ve already been promised. Moody subplots about anti-witch factions and powerful muggle politicians feel so disjointed from the thrust of Scamander’s story that they’re nearly forgotten before they jut back into the finale. Likewise the good cop/goof cop chemistry that Waterston and Redmayne develop over the course of their quest is jangled in the last half-hour by an awkward attempt to make their connection romantic. In a world where anything is possible if feels forced and frustrating that a man and woman who spend any amount of time together just must fall in love. But most vexing is a certain “reveal” in the climax that earned no gasps but only groans from my audience. You’ll know it when you sneer it.
Still, stumbles aside, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is enthralling, enchanting and joyful. Transporting the Harry Potter universe to 1920s America gives Rowling a new sandbox to explore. And long-time Harry Potter helmer David Yates knows just how to bring the spectacle and heart audiences have come to demand from the franchise. Redmayne, delivering a lopsided smile, affable mumble and gangly physicality, offers a distinctively different hero to hang our hopes on. But for all his quirks, Scamander never veers from adorable to obnoxious. Strong supporting turns–from Fogler, Waterston, Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell–combine with awe-striking visuals and imaginative action sequences to conjure a vibrant adventure full of wonder, surprises and fun.
4 out of 5 burritos.
Image: Warner Bros.