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‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ review

'Fantastic Beasts' proves we don't need Potter to appreciate good wizardry

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them seems like a sure-fire hit with its award-winning cast and connection with the Harry Potter franchise – a series that earned an outrageous $7.7 billion worldwide over the course of eight films. And yet, director David Yates’ prequel film still has a lot to prove.

Not only is Fantastic Beasts attempting to kick-start an ambitious, five-film series in the shadow of one of the most successful franchises of all time, but it’s doing so with a script from a first-time screenwriter: Harry Potter creator JK Rowling. On top of all that, the film arrives in theaters without the support of any wildly popular novels with a built-in fanbase – something its predecessor benefitted from when it made the leap from page to screen.

All of this makes the film’s Harry Potter pedigree a double-edged sword, but Fantastic Beasts manages to live up to those lofty expectations while also breaking new, highly entertaining ground.

Set nearly 70 years before the events of the Harry Potter series, Fantastic Beasts casts Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, The Theory of Everything) as magical researcher Newt Scamander who must recover a menagerie of fantastic creatures that escaped his care during a visit to New York City in 1926.

David Yates’ prequel film still has a lot to prove.

Unlike the Harry Potter films that were based on Rowling’s novels, Fantastic Beasts is inspired by a textbook used by the students of Hogwarts School in the original films. Rowling eventually agreed to publish a print version of the book in 2001 that retained its textbook format but offered little in the way of narrative, making the plot of the Fantastic Beasts movie essentially an original story.

This lack of well-defined source material works in the film’s favor, as Fantastic Beasts doles out quite a few clever plot twists that pull you deeper into its magical world in much the same way the Harry Potter films did. And the opportunity to experience those unexpected twists and turns unspoiled makes you appreciate Rowling’s talent that much more.

The film’s Academy Award-winning star also puts his skills to good use as the film’s “magizoologist” protagonist, and offers up a compelling, quirky hero whose awkwardness is only matched by his compassion for the creatures he studies. With the studio planning to draw out Newt Scamander’s adventure over five films, it makes sense that Redmayne’s performance feels less like a complete story arc and more like an introduction to the character, but the balance between what we know about him by the end of the film and the secrets we still have to uncover feels satisfying.

However, some of the best performances in Fantastic Beasts come from the film’s supporting cast.As the magically unaware factory worker who finds himself caught up in Scamander’s wild adventure, actor Dan Fogler wonderfully overachieves in a role that could’ve easily been a forgettable trope. Bumbling humans who happen upon the hidden world of wizards are introduced and dismissed without a second thought throughout much of the Harry Potter series, but Fogler’s character evolves and adds more layers as he’s drawn further into the magical world – to the point where he’s occasionally more interesting than the magic-wielding characters around him.

Both Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol also carve out memorable roles amid all of the spectacle, with the former playing an office worker for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) who aspires to do more, and the latter playing the mind-reading, eternally cheery sister of Waterston’s character. Sudol in particular is fun to watch whenever she’s on the screen, and her performance elevates what could have been a bubbly airhead role into a character with a surprising amount of depth.

In the interest of not spoiling the film’s plot, it suffices to say that the film’s villains serve the story well and provide just the right level of menace for the first installment of a multi-film arc. The actors who portray them all seem to enjoy the colorful roles they play, and that translates to some entertaining performances.

Beyond the performances of the human cast, however, it’s the creatures of Fantastic Beasts that – no surprise here, given the film’s title – really steal the show.

Non-human characters of Fantastic Beasts all have a sense of weight and purpose.

The Harry Potter series had a knack for bringing its nonhuman – and non-wizard – characters to life in a very real, believable way that made them more than scenery in the events transpiring around them. That continues to be the case in Fantastic Beasts, which features a much larger stable of magical creatures of all shapes and sizes than any single Harry Potter movie (and possibly the entirety of the original series).

Where the characters in the Harry Potter films relied on spells, potions, and other magical know-how to save the day – and each other – from the forces aligned against them, Redmayne’s Scamander wields a decidedly different arsenal in the form of various weird, wonderfully unique fauna. Although he proves himself proficient with a wand (but no more proficient than the wizards around him, in many cases), Scamander’s true talent lies in knowing just the right magical beast to call upon (or how to deal with every sort of magical beast) in any situation.

And fittingly, the creatures he calls upon or otherwise interacts with truly are some of the most fantastic beasts we’ve seen so far in Rowling’s magical world.

From miniature, sentient plants to monstrous serpents, the digitally created, non-human characters of Fantastic Beasts all have a sense of weight and purpose beyond simply serving as a reminder that such things exist in Rowling’s fictional universe. There’s an attention to detail with the creatures of Fantastic Beasts that suggests the film’s creative team put some serious thought into each and every resident of Scamander’s magical wildlife refuge, and avoided the easy path of “insert magical creature here” story development.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

If there’s a flaw to be found in Fantastic Beasts, it’s that the film makes magic seem a little too easy for those who use it, resulting in a few too many deus ex machina moments where a wave of a wand solves every problem. When even the biggest disaster can be resolved with a simple spell that puts everything back the way it was, the stakes don’t feel as dire for everyone involved.

That issue is one that future installments are likely to address by drastically raising those stakes, but in this initial adventure, it feels a bit anticlimactic when the chaos wrought by the magical goings-on is wrapped up so cleanly.

Still, Yates’ return to the Harry Potter universe is an impressive example of how to bring audiences back to the world they love without rehashing old material. To its immense credit, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages to be both a successful, compelling prequel and a logical extension of the universe introduced across the eight films released before it.

A talented cast, an exciting story, and a filmmaker with a knack for bringing cinematic magic to life all play into the success of what unfolds on the screen, and ensure that Fantastic Beasts lives up to the promise of its title.