What a wonderful wizard world.
Some 15 years after the release of the first “Harry Potter” movie, the J.K. Rowling cinematic universe expands to the past and to the spin-off world with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first of a reported five films in a franchise that kicks off in the New York of the 1920s — decades before Harry, Hermione and Ron first cracked open textbooks at Hogwarts across the pond.
There’s a whole lot of movie going on here — and more than enough groundwork to carry a fresh franchise sure to be populated with wizards of varying moral stripe, “No-Majs” (the American version of Muggles, a k a non-wizards) and of course fantastic beasts ranging from the tiny and whimsical to the enormous and ferocious to the dark and dangerous.
“Beasts” is based, sort of, on the “textbook” authored by Rowling in the guise of Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” who traveled the globes studying and preserving dozens of magical animals. Albus Dumbledore wrote the foreword, and the textbook contained notes purportedly written by Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.
Now it’s a movie — although it’s more an origins story about Scamander’s early adventures than an attempt to adapt the textbook, which wouldn’t have made for much of a movie seeing as how it’s mostly a textbook.
Do you need to know all this to enjoy “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”? Must you be well versed in all things Potter to appreciate the many layers of storytelling and the nods to future developments and characters?
It will help quite a bit. “Beasts” does work as a stand-alone movie, but while it’s solid and entertaining and often quite amusing, it doesn’t pack the wallop of the first “Harry Potter” movie. There’s a lot of neat stuff going on, but even with all the literal groundbreaking of New York City streets, it’s not a groundbreaking piece of fantasy.
Eddie Redmayne, bursting with tousled hair and aw-shucks grins and absent-minded professor charm, is Newt Scamander, who arrives in the New York of the mid-1920s toting a battered, slightly damaged suitcase containing a number of magical creatures, including a mischievous, duck-billed Niffler; the praying mantis-like, clingy and cute little Bowtruckle; the creepy, monkey-like, sometimes invisible Demiguise; the snake-like Occamy, and there just might be a dragon or two in that suitcase as well.
It’s a wonder Newt had room to pack a change of underwear and a fresh shirt for the big trip.
Anyway. One of the creatures gets loose, and then another, and then another — and off we go on a wild, sometimes convoluted, multi-pronged adventure, with some No-Majs engaging in an actual witch-hunt to prove wizards exist, and the wizard community itself torn by controversy, what with the evil Gellert Grindelwald missing in action, and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), up to some double-crossing and triple-crossing schemes.
Dan Fogler provides ample comic relief as Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj factory worker with dreams of running a bakery. He finds himself neck deep in the wizard world quite by accident. Fogler lends charm and heart to what could have been the obligatory “I can’t believe what I’m seeing!” role.
Katherine Waterston doesn’t create much spark in the role of Porpentina Goldstein, a low-level witch with MACUSA trying to work her way back up the investigative ladder. Alison Sudol is more fun as Queenie Goldstein, Porpentina’s bubbly, mind-reading younger sister, who takes a shine to Jacob Kowalski.
And then there’s a somber Samantha Morton as Mary Lou Barebone, the abusive leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society (in other words, witch hunters), and Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, Mary Lou’s freaky and creepy adopted son, who looks for all the world like a DC Comics supervillain in the making. The dark material involving the Barebones is a world away from the slapstick comedy involving Jacob and the benign magical creatures. (Some of the wacky, slow-motion antics with the CGI animals seem straight out of a not particularly inspired Super Bowl commercial.)
“Fantastic Beasts” is directed by the stellar veteran David Yates, who helmed the last four “Potter” films and is clearly at home in this expanded universe. The special effects are of course top level (though again, I wouldn’t say they’re breathtakingly special); the sets are amazingly rich in detail; the cinematography is fluid and vibrant.
The result is an effective if not everlasting magical spell.
Warner Bros. presents a film directed by David Yates and written by J. K. Rowling, based on her book. Rated PG-13 (for some fantasy action violence). Running time: 123 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.