I was a fairly big Harry Potter fan years ago, though I haven’t touched the books since I first read Deathly Hallows and I haven’t seen any of the movies since the last, other than catching a bit here and there on ABC Family, ahem, Freeform. Still, I am generally a fan of the series. I wasn’t especially excited for the return to cinematic version of Rowling’s Wizarding World; at least I wasn’t until I learned that Rowling was writing the screenplays and that it would be set in the Roaring 20’s. Fantastic Beasts turned out of be one of the most satisfying forays into this magical world.
For all that Fantastic Beasts deals with a lot of still extant social issues, it works very well as a delightful distraction. The movie follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British wizard visiting New York for the first time. He manages to get his suitcase, which holds an entire magical menagerie, switched with that of the non-magical baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). At the same time he gets embroiled with Porpentina Goldstein, an ex-auror – think magical cop – who is on thin ice with the American wizarding government after an incident involving a group of New Salemers who are trying to rid the USA of magical folks, for illegally bringing many of the animals in his case into the country. There is also apparently a magical beast running loose in New York City causing havoc everywhere it goes. Newt and Jacob search out Newt’s missing beasts, while tensions in the city grow higher and higher. Things eventually build to a head and a big confrontation, as things do. The big conflicts are much less interesting than the Magical Beasts themselves, with the improbable and impossible physiology. Having Jacob doused with the pheromones of some kind of glowing amphibious rhinoceros so he is chased around Central Park while Newt tries to coax the beast back into his suitcase is wonderful.
What Fantastic Beasts does best is create characters, something Rowling was great at in the books. Newt is the right kind of awkward, nervous and furtive around other people while being uniquely competent when dealing with the various animals that show up. Jacob adapts well and believably to being suddenly pulled into this magical world, with awe and fear and curiosity, with skills that have nothing to do with the task at hand, but not just some dolt pulled along for the ride. The too earnest Tina and her delightfully flighty sister Queenie are likewise well fleshed out characters. The villains are not as well shaded, but there does seem to be some life behind them.
For all that the bulk of the runtime is a delightful romp; it has quite the downer of an ending. The immediate conflict has ended, but none of the problems shown in the film have been solved. The biggest being the tense relations between the magic and non-magic communities. That conflict is what leads to the most emotional part of the ending, when something that has been inevitable from the beginning finally happens. Still, with the handful of codas it does manage to pull out some semblance of happy feelings.
After a summer that can best be described as a disappointment, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them continues a strong fall. I don’t know how well it will stick with me, but its combination of wonder and its terrific setting make it one of the more enjoyable tentpole movies of the year. It isn’t perfect, it is rather messy in spots, but it brings a certain ineffable sense of wonder to the screen that is always enjoyable.