Over the course of the seven Harry Potter books (and eight movies), J.K. Rowling created a fulsome world of wizards and witches. Most readers and movie-goers reached the end of the series with a sense of satisfaction, and a certain sadness as well. It was similar for Star Wars fans when the credits rolled on Return of the Jedi. The expansion of Star Wars with the prequel trilogy wasn’t artistically successful except for Revenge of the Sith, and the best viewing order of those movies completely eliminates The Phantom Menace. Now, though, Star Wars has expanded in the other direction with the excellent The Force Awakens, and then Rogue One fills in the story directly before A New Hope. Rowling, too, has added to her creation cinematically, writing her first screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Thankfully it’s more Force Awakens than Phantom Menace.
The story plays off of the book that tried to eat Harry Potter’s shoe in an early scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban. By Harry’s day, Newt Scamander’s textbook is a classic and has increased the wizarding world’s understanding and appreciation of magical animals. But it’s a very different world when Newt (Eddie Redmayne) disembarks his boat in New York City in December 1926.
There’s a hidden wizard world in the United States just like in England, but strange occurrences are breaking through into the nomaj world (No Magic, the American version of Muggles). Newt carries a case filled with the beasts he’s studied, but through a series of misadventure a nomaj Newt met named Kowalski (Dan Folger) releases three of the beasts.
Newt runs afoul of former auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), but she’s currently out of favor with Graves (Colin Farrell), the head of the department. With Kowalski and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) in tow, Newt and Tina seek to recapture the escapees. But there’s danger from Chastity Barebone (Jenn Murray) and her children Credence and Modesty (Ezra Miller, Faith Wood-Blagrove) who are leading a crusade against magic.
Newt’s harder to identify with than Harry Potter, so it takes a bit to warm up to him. But Redmayne plays him with a cockeyed charm that works perfectly for the role and soon wins you over. Redmayne was the only choice for Newt and didn’t have to audition, which may have been a relief. He’d auditioned for the role of Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets and was turned down for the job. Waterston has been working for a while – she had a small role in Michael Clayton – but has recently appeared in Steve Jobs and Inherent Vice, and she has five projects coming out next year.
As the second leads, Alison Sudol and Dan Folger shine. Folger imbues his regular Joe character with both honor and a sense of wonder when his eyes are open to the world of wizards, and in the end his characterization touches your heart. Sudol lights up her scenes like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holiday rolled into one role. Sudol’s a regular on the Emmy-winning “Transparent” and also has a career as a musician, recording under the name A Fine Frenzy.
Farrell does best when he’s not carrying a movie. He provides a brooding and threatening presence that works well in counterpoint to Redmayne. Ezra Miller had made an impression in The Perks of Being a Wallflower (with former Hogwarts student Emma Watson) and an interesting role in Trainwreck. He’s moving into more action films after being cast as Barry Allen/The Flash in next year’s Justice League, to be followed by a stand-alone movie. There are several well-known actors in character roles, including Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, and in an unrecognizable cameo, Johnny Depp.
David Yates directed the final four Harry Potter films, so he’s intimately acquainted with the series. That comfort level helps the movie soar. Rowling had originally written the basis for the movie as a special book for Comic Relief in 2001. 80% of the books profits went to children’s charities around the world.
Fantastic Beasts is now planned to be a five movie series. The question is, will it be able to establish a strong enough story to last through a pentalogy. The first was good, but you never know when a phantom menace is lurking.