Five years after the epic eight-part "Harry Potter" series
came to its affecting conclusion, author J.K. Rowling has returned (this time as screenwriter) to the world of witchcraft and wizardry with prequel spin-off "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." Loosely inspired by her creature-filled textbook of the same name, this opening chapter of a planned cinematic quintet tonally reminds of 2001's inaugural "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
," before the boy wizard's battle against the evil Lord Voldemort threatened to destroy him and everyone he held dear. Even as Rowling and director David Yates (who previously helmed 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
," 2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
," 2010's "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows Part 1
," and 2011's "Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows Part 2
") craft a magic-tinged parable on prejudice and oppression, the film is so airy and light-hearted it verges on inconsequential. That is not to suggest it isn't enjoyable, though, because it is.
The year is 1926 when former Hogwarts student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives by boat to New York City with nothing more than a suitcase filled with fantastic beasts in his possession. When his attaché is unsuspectingly swapped with that of aspiring bakery owner Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), it sets into motion a potential disaster as the creatures inside are accidentally unleashed upon Manhattan. Aided by new ally Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an investigator working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), Newt sets off to retrieve the runaway mystical animals. At a time when tensions are on high for Majes to keep their abilities private, these supernatural disturbances around the city risk wizarding exposure from the No-Maj population. Complicating matters is an even graver threat in the form of an obscurusa dark, deadly force inadvertently brought about by a Maj's attempts to suppress their abilities.
"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is really rather quaint, but there is a certain charm in that. While Muggle viewers will find enough to divert them, it is devoted readers of Rowling's books whom will get the most out of the picture, the incorporation of and references to supporting characters from the novels serving to inform and give some weight to its confectionary touch. As the first in a presumably sprawling new franchise, the film suggests a bridge to better things for Yates and Rowling, who eventually reclaim their footing but do spend a fair amount of time meandering as they introduce and try to juggle their cast of characters.
Through little faults of their own, leads Eddie Redmayne (2014's "The Theory of Everything
") and Katherine Waterston (2015's "Queen of Earth
") are the weak links. Little is divulged about Newt and Porpentina's pasts or who they intrinsically are as peoplefor a protagonist, a slouchy, curiously bland Redmayne is especially left adriftand as a result, the viewer has trouble emotionally warming to them or caring about their cause. Far more involving are Dan Fogler (2011's "Take Me Home Tonight
"), as sympathetic No-Maj Jacob, and Alison Sudol, as Porpentina's bubbly, vaguely Marilyn Monroe-ish psychic sister Queenie. Separate or together (the romance that blossoms between them is the movie's best element), Fogler and Sudol are quirky charmers, so genial one cannot help but root for them. As Percival Graves, the scheming director of MACUSA, Colin Farrell (2014's "Winter's Tale
") brings his signature intensity to the role, but is sadly underused. More memorable is Samantha Morton (2012's "Cosmopolis
"), cutting a calmly imposing figure as Mary Lou Barebone, the leader of an anti-Maj extremist group calling themselves the New Salem Philanthropic Society.
Reminding often of 1995's "Jumanji" (minus the board game), "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" hedges its bets on the rampaging computer-generated beasts of the title and their silliness/adorability factor. Because it is understood that they aren't a fiendish sort (they generally do not mean to harm others, but do cause plenty of destruction), urgency and peril take a backseat to technical spectacle. Rowling is far from evasive in her allegorical, real-world motivesthe opening montage of newspaper headlines lay out the bigoted anti-wizard era in which it is setyet the film's pacing and pitch are noticeably laid-back. The results are unforced and likable, but not without a detectable slackness in its early world- and character-building. That "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" grows more comfortable as it goes is a positive sign; feeling like it could be a standalone feature but clearly not, the sky's the limit on where Rowling chooses to take her series from here.