Set in New York in 1926, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an enchanting display of “Harry Potter” author J.K Rowling’s knack for world-building. Rowling does an excellent job of intertwining the reality of this time and place with fascinating magical undercurrents, humor, and wit. Aided by a new set of characters but set in the same world as the Harry Potter series, the film dazzles and entertains as it explores this new landscape.
The lead of this new series is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British “magizooligist,” passing through New York on route to Arizona. Despite traveling with only one briefcase, Newt did not pack lightly. His magically enhanced briefcase contains his laboratory as well as an enormous zoo filled with many magical animals. The briefcase is precariously held closed by one finicky latch. So what could possibly go wrong?
Along his journey, Newt accidentally reveals his magical abilities to Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an average man just trying to get a loan to start up a bakery. Jacob and Newt’s stories intertwine, and Jacob tags along as Newt’s sidekick and provides a humorous outside perspective to the magical reality.
To complicate matter for Newt, he is being closely followed by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted member of the magical law enforcement. She tries to charge Newt for not wiping the mind of Jacob, a serious wizarding offense, since “no-majs”(non-magical humans) are not meant to know of the existence of magical society.
By far the most entertaining aspect of this film is the exploration of the wizarding world outside of Hogwarts. The film shows us the heated political climate between the magic and non-magic societies. On the wizarding side, there is a policy akin to segregation towards “no-majs” where it is looked down upon to associate with and forbidden to marry them. On the non-magical side, people largely are convinced that wizards don’t exist, but those who do believe have reacted with extreme antagonism. This is exemplified by the group known as “New Salem Philanthropic Society” who sermonize on the street about the evils of the witches and wizards living among them.
The film vividly portrays the spectrum of wizarding society that exists in the 20s. We travel from government meetings at the Magical Congress of the United States of America to shady speakeasies run by mobster goblins. The new world envelopes the viewer into its reality where at every turn new eccentricities are unveiled.
J.K Rowling has also chosen a great lead character for her new franchise. Newt Scamander is not a typical blockbuster hero. He’s awkward and misanthropic, but he’s also courageous and tender hearted. For most of the film, Newt is cagey and uncomfortable around others, but we see his admirable compassion when it comes to the creatures of his study. Eddie Redmayne does a great job of playing Newt. Redmayne’s portrayal is versatile. As Newt, he seamlessly transitions from being unbearably awkward to unflinching bravery without making it feel out of character. More than anything Newt’s humility and expertise of the wizarding world allows the story and the world he inhabits come to life.
Nevertheless, the film is not without flaws. The foremost problem is that characters, other than Newt and Jacob, aren’t explored with much depth. Potentially fascinating characters, such as the Tina Goldstein and the leader of the anti-witch group, are used solely as plot points.
The film also loses its way in the last third. The story divulges into explosions and chase scenes that take us away from character and world exploration. It isn’t to say these scenes aren’t exciting, but they are the lesser scenes of the movie.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a captivating start to a new franchise and a sign of good things to come.