At the very beginning, that instantly recognizable John William’s Harry Potter theme plays over the Warner Bros. logo, but once it vanishes and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them title appears, the music distinctly shifts to a piece from James Newton Howard’s new score. It’s a wonderfully strange moment right at the start, and it perfectly sums up Fantastic Beasts – a film that feels both tantalizing new and utterly familiar.

The Harry Potter saga (is that what we call it?) may not be as longstanding as say the Star Wars saga or the Lord of the Rings, but its story, characters, and most importantly, the world it introduced has inspired a fanbase that’s just as large and fanatical and hungry for more. Seven novels, three tie-in books, eight films, and a stage play later and J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World remains ripe with possibilities for more imaginative stories and adventures. And boy are we lucky she chose to dive back in herself!

There certainly are Harry Potter connections in Fantastic Beasts, but they are sparse and sprinkled throughout; a mention of Hogwarts here and a Dumbledore name drop there. In that sense, Fantastic Beasts is quite welcoming to muggles (or no-maj if your prefer and I don’t believe anyone does), but for those practically raised on Harry Potter lore it’s a giddy experience to watch that familiar magic at work in a unfamiliar setting.

The premise of Fantastic Beasts is something of backstory for the book of the same name, exploring the life of its author, the unassuming and eccentric magizoologist Newt Scamander; specifically his time in New York City in 1926. He steps off the boat with a magical briefcase brimming with wild and unbelievable creatures he’s collected over his travels, but one mishap after another, and some of those beasts break out and run amok. And while it’s certainly a challenge recapturing them all like some wizarding Pokemon trainer, the bigger threat lies in exposing America’s magical community – something that’s a much bigger taboo stateside than it is in Great Britain.

Out of that fear and suspicion come themes which are darker than maybe you were expecting, but they make Fantastic Beasts a richer experience, adding some real weight to what is otherwise a magical beast scavenger hunt. There’s the New Salem Philanthropic Society or Second Salemers who preach of the evils of witchcraft on street corners and the Magical Congress of the United States of America or MACUSA, which basically outlaws any fraternizing between wizards and no-majs and has strict laws prohibiting magical creatures.

In the middle of all this unrest is Newt, who doesn’t share such a small-minded view of either muggles or magical creatures. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt with a little of the absent-minded professor, he’s shy but has a quiet confidence in his abilities and decisions. He’s a little eccentric, too, even by wizard standards, and is clearly more at home with beasts than people – be they magical or not. Newt is a mysterious character and he reveals very little about himself or his past in the movie, presumably to leave more surprises to come in the sequels. Still, Redmayne communicates as much as he can about Newt through his behavior, his posture and mannerisms, portraying him as a kind-hearted and modest hero.

Redmayne is quite good as Newt, but he’s so clearly overshadowed by Dan Fogler as the no-maj, Jacob Kowalski. Fogler’s Jacob is not only our audience surrogate this time around, being the hapless no-maj without a clue about the magical world, but he’s also the beating heart of the film. A factory worker at a cannery with dreams of opening his own bakery, Jacob’s wonderment and enthusiasm is infectious. Also along for the ride is Katherine Waterston as a former auror and Newt’s future wife, Porpentina (Tina for short), and she’s a very grounded, no nonsense character which makes for a good balance with Redmayne’s Newt. Rounding out the foursome is Tina’s sister, Queenie, a Legilimens, which means she can read people’s thoughts, though she has trouble with Brits. Alison Sudol is delightful in the role, brightening up each scene she’s in, and she and Fogler share a sweet chemistry in their forbidden budding romance.

Without going in to too much detail for fear of spoiling any of the film’s big reveals, Colin Farrel gives a great performance as the menacing Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves. He too brings a no-maj into the magical world, Ezra Miller’s put upon orphan, Credence Barebone, whose adopted mother is the cruel leader of the Second Salemers. Percival is, of course, simply using Credence as an informant, but his promises to teach him magic makes for a twisted inversion of Newt and Jacob’s friendship. And though Miller will soon be known to movie-goers the world over as The Flash when he appears in next year’s Justice League, his role in Fantastic Beasts reveals an incredible range – with Credence being such a pitiful, sad character and basically the total opposite of Barry Allen.

David Yates directs Fantastic Beasts, having been the man behind the camera for the last four Harry Potter films. With that being the case, Fantastic Beasts looks and feels very much like those later films, seamlessly blending a secret magic society with 1920s New York. The titular beasts are utilized quite well, allowing them to have a bit more character than their role as a plot device would have you believe, especially in any scene in which they interact with Newt. They also look pretty good, too, a far cry from early CGI of the Harry Potter films, though they aren’t as realistic-looking as today’s most sophisticated CGI.

Fantastic Beasts‘ script is a first time effort from J.K. Rowling, which means there are a few hiccups, like pacing and story that’s just a tad overstuffed to do justice to each plot thread. But being that everything in the film springs from Rowling’s mind, it all feels authentic, and the ways in which she expands on the Wizarding World canon will excite fans immensely. This film’s story is mostly wrapped by the end, but with it being the first of five planned films, there is also plenty material left to explore later on.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an excellent jumping off point for a new franchise, finding a way to both tap into the magic and nostalgia of the Harry Potter films while also setting up a brand new adventure, with its own characters, themes and stakes. There was uncertainty of how well a second trip into the Wizard World would fare, especially without much of what made the Harry Potter films so memorable, but there’s no question now – Fantastic Beasts effortlessly recaptures the wonder and whimsy of the Harry Potter films, giving fans and newcomers plenty of reasons to return for more installments.

Rating 4

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