In what may be a first, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is based on a published, fictional textbook from J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. First released under the pen name of Newt Scamander in 2001, this companion to the Potter series was a mock reference book that had been owned by Harry himself. As with most encyclopedias, it was rather light on plot, so when the film went into production, Rowling wrote the screenplay as the first in a series of prequels to the Potter world with Newt Scamander(Eddie Redmayne) as the lead character.
The story picks up in 1926 and Newt has just arrived in New York City. Although polite and friendly, his social awkwardness, inability maintain eye-contact, and curiously active suitcase, make him a subject of suspicion. He catches the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) a sort of mystical detective agent for the Magical Congress of the United States of America or MACUSA for short. During this era of the US not only was there a prohibition on alcohol but on magic as well. Witches and Wizards were feared and outlawed. “Second Salem” religious zealots demonstrate on the city streets, and laws have been passed preventing the magical and “No-Majs” from marrying. It’s a bad time to own a wand.
MACUSA’s primary objective is to keep the No-Majs in ignorance of any wizardry in the US. They fear a war with the humans should their presence be known. Apparently, it’s a routine practice to wipe the memories of anyone who witnesses something that can only be explained by magic.
Through a series of unfortunate and hilarious events, a NoMaj named Jacob (Dan Fogler) ends up with Newt’s suitcase and unleashes a number of Fantastic Beasts upon the city. As Newt teams up with Jacob, Portentia, and her flirtatious sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to recapture these often misunderstood creatures, it becomes apparent that there is another far more malevolent force wreaking havoc in NYC. The Director of Magical Security at MACUSA, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) immediately blames Newt for this murderous entity and posts a reward for his incarceration.
The movie shines when it is being its own thing and not borrowing from other sources. The quartet of main characters are each extremely charming in their own way and share great on-screen chemistry. Dan Fogler nearly steals the show with his heart-of-gold wannabe-baker performance. Like the Potter films before it, this movie is filled to the brim with small details and references. Just the opening sequence alone begs to be freeze-framed so all the details can be seen. The creature design also refreshingly lives up to the films title. Once we journey inside of Newt’s Gallifreyan suitcase we are treated to a menagerie of fascinating creatures both big and small. It’s almost disappointing that more of them didn’t escape as they could have all benefited from additional screen time.
Unfortunately, not everything is fresh and new in this movie and too much borrows from other movies. A clear parallel to “Men in Black” is noticed early on and then continues to reinforce itself. There are also nods to “Carrie”, “Ghostbusters 2”, “Star Wars” (Ep 5 & 6), and “Dr. Dolittle.” (Ok, that last one is a bit of a stretch) Perhaps most jarring is magical world repairing last seen in “Jupiter Ascending.” A cheap plot contrivance that removes all consequences of collateral damage.
The strong liberal message should also be addressed. When the Harry Potter series first came out, Rowling and her fantasies were attacked by a number of Christian groups. This movie seems to be her response. A large section of the plot deals with the dangers of repressing your true nature and the oppressive laws both government and religions create. “Who do these laws protect? Us or Them?!” Percival shouts in frustration at one point. While not a negative message, some viewers may be turned off my the occasional heavy-handed metaphors.
Even with its inconsistencies “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an entertaining, and often quite funny ride. Even with a few warts, it’s a welcomed addition to the Potter-verse.