How do you make a successful Harry Potter prequel without Harry Potter? J.K. Rowling’s new spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, travels back nearly 70 years to 1926 before the events of the first Potter movie to tell a whole new story in a new setting with (almost) all new characters. Reviving the magical universe from the second biggest franchise of all time is a pretty risky move, but Fantastic Beasts does a good job of blending the familiar with the new.

Unlike the eight previous Potter movies, Fantastic Beasts isn’t based on a novel; it’s inspired by a fictional textbook mentioned in Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Rowling published the textbook in 2001 under the pen name Newt Scamander, a Magizoologist who we finally meet in the new movie. Fantastic Beasts, which marks Rowling’s screenwriting debut and the return of longtime Potter director David Yates, stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt. As an awkward, sheepish wizard who gets along better with furry and winged creatures than people, he makes an unlikely hero.

Newt travels to New York City with a suitcase full of creatures, who are considered dangerous during this era in wizarding history. When a handful of creatures escape from the suitcase, Newt has to race across Manhattan to find them before the Magical Congress of the United States of America (M.A.C.U.S.A., the American Ministry of Magic) captures them. He finds help from new friends, including two American witch sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (the America world for “Muggle”).

It might be hard to top the beloved trio of heroes from the Potter movies, but in Fantastic Beasts Rowling gives fans a worthy leading quartet in Newt, Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. They have great chemistry as a group and bring a buoyancy and charm to the movie. Redmayne applies his usual bashfulness to Newt in surprisingly delightful degrees. Fogler’s goofy, lovable Jacob is sure to be a fan favorite and he’s the center of some of the film’s best sequences.

Along with Rowling’s imagination, Fantastic Beasts’ greatest asset is Yates. He directed the best movies in the Potter franchise (films five through eight), and knows how to make thrilling visual sequences that aren’t overcrowded with CGI. He does that again here with plenty of memorable action and chase sequences that feel familiar and a part of Rowling’s original world, but also distinctly their own. Newt’s adorable creature Niffler is the star of two scenes, one in a bank and another in a jewelry shop. The final battle feels like a Potter duel plus a lot more Apparating. Yates also does a great job visualizing the inside of Newt’s suitcase, which contains the creatures’ various ecosystems and habitats. Newt walks from an Arizona desert to a rainforest to an arctic tundra like sets on a movie stage. Rowling and Yates succeed at transporting you to a magical world you don’t want to leave.

Fantastic Beasts‘ one direct connection to the original series is the character we meet in the opening sequence: Gellert Grindelwald. He was first introduced in flashbacks in The Deathly Hallows, a former friend of Dumbledore’s who, long before Harry’s time, turned towards the Dark Arts and became a feared Dark Wizard. In this movie we see the adult version of the violent blond-haired wizard played by Johnny Depp (a problematic casting choice in light of the actor’s real-life domestic abuse controversy). After we briefly see him attack a group of wizards in the opening, a series of newspaper headlines whirl past the camera revealing the rise of Grindelwald, his killings across Europe, and his disappearance since going into hiding.

The looming threat of the Dark Wizard mostly exists in the background of the movie, but there’s multiple twists that make it pretty clear this franchise will tell Grindelwald’s origin story. As exciting as it is that Rowling will explore Grindelwald’s relationship with a young (potentially gay) Dumbledore in the sequel, I can’t help but feel we’ve been tricked. Is Fantastic Beasts about Newt and his creatures, or were they just decoys for a franchise that’s actually about Grindelwald?

Fantastic Beasts is a good movie, and offers a fun and inventive return to Rowling’s wizarding world, but it could have been a better movie if didn’t waste so much time setting up a new franchise. The second half of the film is so overstuffed and busy with subplots that it begins to lose shape. There’s a minor plot about Jon Voight’s newspaper titan that seems unimportant, but will likely fold into the sequels. There’s Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barbone, an Evangelical-like No-Maj who hunts down witches with her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). Rowling also introduces (minor spoiler alert) a new concept called an Obscuris, an uncontrollable dark force that erupts after a wizard has repressed his or her magic. It’s an interesting idea and seems to be a loose analogy for repressed homosexuality, but the connections between that and Newt’s story feel forced.

There’s a lot to be admired about Fantastic Beasts; particularly the way it does its own thing without trying to replicate the Harry Potter films. The four main characters have a lot of potential, and with Yates behind the camera, there’s plenty of the wizarding world for Rowling to explore. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that this franchise demands four more films. Hopefully Rowling can prove me wrong.


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