If you thought that the “Harry Potter” franchise ended with Harry, Ron and Hermione fading into a black screen at the end of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2,” you would be fortunately mistaken. J.K. Rowling revitalized the beloved mythology with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which was recently released in theaters. According to Rowling, this film is one of five in the new “Fantastic Beasts” series, and based on this film, the series is off to a good start.
The story takes place in 1920s New York, where British wizard Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, arrives with a suitcase full of magical creatures. When several of these “fantastic beasts” escape from the case, Newt, with the help of a “No-Maj” New Yorker named Jacob, must recapture the creatures before the Magical Congress of the United States of America stops and arrests him.
Eddie Redmayne is a wonderful addition to this magical world; he portrays Newt as an awkward yet endearing young wizard that I found myself rooting for the entire film. I liked the contrast Rowling created between Newt and Harry. The former is more of an unlikely hero, and he has a certain level of vulnerability that Harry does not. Dan Vogler and Katherine Waterston also round out the supporting cast as characters Jacob Kowalski and former auror for MACUSA Tina Goldstein. Other than the “fantastic beasts,” Vogler provides many of the comedic beats throughout the movie. While I didn’t love Waterston’s performance in every scene, I think Tina is fairly compelling as a character, and she will definitely play an important role for Newt in future installments.
What I really appreciated about “Fantastic Beasts” is that it doesn’t try to ride the coattails of the “Harry Potter” installments that came before. While there are certainly references and easter eggs connecting the films, this film stands on its own. It explores a new side of this magical world, which I found intriguing and refreshing. Viewers don’t need much background knowledge to understand and enjoy this film, which illustrates J.K. Rowling’s control over her own source material.
That being said, this film definitely looks and feels like a “Harry Potter” film. David Yates, who directed every “Harry Potter” movie since “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” returns to direct this film. The new movie is his fifth encounter with Rowling’s universe, and Yates has a firm understanding of this world and how it ought to be portrayed. Naturally, much of the visual energy flows from past films. The New York scenery is beautifully shot, and the creatures are well-designed and adorable. I especially liked the “bowtruckle,” a tiny, plant-like creature that has a strong bond with Newt.
I do have some issues with the film, one being its tone. The tone is a little uneven when the plot toggles between different storylines. On the one side, we have Newt and his new companions trying to find his creatures that have escaped. Here, the colorization, lighting and overall feel is much more lively and energetic. However, when we shift to scenes involving an auror named Percival Graves, played by Colin Farrell, the tone does an almost 180-degree turn. This happens especially in interactions with a troubled boy named Credence, played by Ezra Miller. While the filmmakers designed this change purposefully, I felt that the dry changes contrasted far too much with the more colorful, upbeat tone of Newt’s main storyline.
On the whole, “Fantastic Beasts” presents an entirely new side of this universe. Last week, I ranked all “Harry Potter” films from worst to best. In terms of where this film ranks among its predecessors, I would place it in the middle, roughly on par with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” I didn’t leave the theater with the same sense of awe as I did with other films. However, I found the story to be one of the most original installments, and I think it sets up this time period and its characters better than “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.” I’m excited to see what else J.K. Rowling has planned for this world.