Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter mega-franchise that is home to eight films that grossed a collective $7.7 billion, but it is anything but a simple follow-up. Dark and inventive, Fantastic Beasts stands out for its celebration of outsiders and for its willingness to stray from the traditional Potter series.
Beasts, based on a wizarding school “textbook” authored by Potter author J.K. Rowling, introduces Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a quirky Magizoologist arriving in 1920s New York in search of some mysterious magical creatures. He quickly and begrudgingly befriends “No-Maj,” the American equivalent of “Muggle,” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and recently demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Meanwhile, The Magical Congress of the United States, led by Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) must deal with dark magic plaguing the city and threatening to send the Wizarding World into war with the No-Maj population. The plot is more complex than this, but at the risk of revealing some of the film’s best twists and turns, this will have to do.
It is impossible to view this film without thinking about how it compares to and departs from Harry Potter lore. It is undeniably (and pleasantly) attached, with references to familiar characters popping up intermittently and the promise of more connections to come. That being said, Beasts stands out on its own, drawing from but also reimagining the world of wizards Rowling introduced to the world almost two decades ago.
Director David Yates, who also helmed the final four Potter films, maintains an edginess throughout Beasts. His New York is at times dark and grim, but he makes sure to balance this with inventive action sequences and the wonder of Newt’s beastly friends. Watching a mate-seeking, hippo-like creature chase Jacob through Central Park is delightful, and stepping inside Newt’s magical zoo of sorts is as immersive as anything we have seen in the Potter films. Beasts takes place in a world in which citizens (magical and non-magical alike) feel threatened and uncertain, and Yates makes sure to reflect this in his vision, without allowing the magic and wonder to fade away.
Beasts’s greatest strength, however, lies in its characters. Some would love to consume endless stories featuring Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but Rowling’s new players are lovable in their own ways. No one in Beasts is a “chosen one (though sequels may tell us otherwise). Instead, Newt and his companions are outsiders — unexceptional and odd in the eyes of others but capable of seeing things others cannot or will not accept. Redmayne plays Newt as an awkward, inept socializer, but his love for magical creatures is more touching than one could expect. Waterston’s Tina does not fit in with Graves and the administration, but her persistence and guile make her the character most reminiscent of Rowling’s original heroes. Fogler and Ailson Sudol as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie are an endearing couple that brings reliable comic relief throughout the film. Rowling’s clever script, which at times teeters towards sappiness but mainly deals in wizarding wit and the comfortable virtuousness of her earlier work, supports the cast well. Fogler makes every punchline count, and Newt’s and Tina’s emergences are intentionally and entertainingly discomfiting.
Beasts will do well by most measures, already poised to perform well at the box office and having earned mostly positive reviews. That leaves us with the question of what the rest of this series will bring, given the lack of source material and the potential for connections to the origins of characters introduced throughout Potter lore. If there is a major concern stemming from this first entry, it is Rowling’s ability to lean on Newt as a leading character for a multi-film story arc. That being said, she has already established a strong supporting cast; Newt is as much a part of the team as he is a star on his own. With names like Dumbledore and Grindelwald bound to take something close to center stage going forward, it is easy to get excited about all the intertwining yet to come. Where Newt and his beasts will fit in remains to be seen, and we cannot yet know whether we will hear more of Deathly Hallows, world-altering duels, and chosen ones. No matter how Rowling and her team choose to link the wizarding eras together, they have earned our trust. Newt, Tina, and Jacob will never match the fame and belovedness of Harry and company, but they do provide a new and engaging addition to the fictional world so many millions of people already hold dear. Let’s hope that world just keeps expanding.