“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the first big screen return to J.K. Rowling’s magical world of wizards and witches in five years. But even though it takes place decades prior to (and an ocean away from) the Harry Potter era, “Fantastic Beasts” isn’t so much a prequel as it is an expansion.
In fact, fans might be surprised at how few references the film makes to its predecessors. Aside from some passing references to Hogwarts and Albus Dumbledore, “Fantastic Beasts” could almost pass for a standalone franchise. And maybe that’s the point.
The film opens in the late 1920s as a wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of illegal enchanted creatures. Scamander is a kind of animal rights activist for the wizarding world, but has to be discreet since U.S. authorities have banned magical beasts. Naturally, he mixes up his suitcases with a No-Maj (the U.S. equivalent of a Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who promptly unleashes several of the magic creatures on lower Manhattan.
Meanwhile, local magic authorities led by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) are investigating a series of suspicious disturbances that threaten to expose the magic community to the No-Maj world. Many fear the disturbances might be linked to an evil wizard named Grindelwald (apparently the 1920s equivalent of Lord Voldermort).
To recover the beasts-at-large, Scamander teams up with Kowalski, and they in turn team up with an ex-Auror named Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), along with her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Their efforts lead to a series of fantastic mini-encounters, such as when they have to recover a rhinoceros-like creature from Central Park. But they also tie into Graves’s case, which seems to be connected to a foster family of anti-magic extremists.
Unlike the Potter films, “Fantastic Beasts” is not based on one of Rowling’s books. Rather, the author wrote “Fantastic Beasts” directly for the screen, which results in a dense narrative that sets up the wizard world in 1920s America while working through its own immediate story.
Visually, it isn’t a huge leap from the earlier films, since the wizard culture always seemed to favor a kind of vintage aesthetic. (It’s not like the kids at Hogwarts were spending their time on smart phones or in computer labs.)
The Potter imagination is also on full display, mostly through the introduction of Scamander’s myriad beasts, which blend familiar physical characteristics with human foibles, as in a platypus-looking creature that is obsessed with hoarding coins and jewelry.
Some of the tonal consistency is assured by the presence of director David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films. Between its adult cast and its dark tone (which is dark enough to earn a PG-13 rating), “Fantastic Beasts” almost feels like Harry Potter for grown-ups.
Presumably, the goal is to start a new wizard franchise (J.K. Rowling announced that there will be five films, according to cnn.com). That may be good news to diehard Potter fans, but “Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t quite leave you breathless for more. Part of that might be that all the leads are adults instead of wide-eyed children. But while “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a strong film on its own merits, it inhabits a more adult world, one that wields Rowling’s imagination, but not so much of her heart.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence; running time: 133 minutes.