It’s 1926 in New York, a wizard named Newt Scamander arrives carrying a case full of magical creatures. He’s on his way to Arizona, but his trip is delayed when he gets tangled up in the wizarding community in the city. Also, something, maybe something magical, is messing up the metropolis. If that sounds like the set up to something straight out of the world of Harry Potter, it kind of is and is not. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” comes from the same mind as the Potter series, J.K. Rowling, and is based on a story written back in 2001 credited to Newt Scamander, with the profits going to the charity Comic Relief. It’s more of an expansion of the world Potter and his cohorts live in, extended to the other side of the Atlantic.
Rowling has announced that this is first of a series of five films, which should make Potter fans downright giddy with expectation. Rowling will be writing the screenplay for each of the upcoming films. If the next four as as engaging and charming as this one, Rowling may actually gain a few more fans. David Yates is the director of “Fantastic Beasts,” just as he was with the last four Potter films. He’s a steady, talented, director that does not get in the way of the story and uses CGI in effective amounts without going overboard. Yates was the right choice to expand the Potter world with the kick-off to the new series.
Of course, it does not hurt if you have a great cast to work with. Eddie Redmayne is Newt, the new arrival to our shores. He’s awkward around people, but in his element when hanging out with monsters. Redmayne is a perfect choice for the role, gawky and uncomfortable at all the right moments. Katherine Waterston is Tina, a wizard dragged into Newt’s world, though clearly she’d rather be anywhere else. Waterston’s performance is a nuanced thing to see. Kowalski is played wonderfully by Dan Fogler and Colin Farrell is Graves, the man investigating the strange goings-on.
There is plenty that is familiar here, and plenty of new looks at a world that has been explored to multiple depths with the Potter films. The dreamlike qualities are well done, the story of the unseen world of magic colliding with the ordinary world is engaging enough to carry the first film of the series and set the audience up for what comes next. It’s well-made, well-paced and there is a built-in audience. Judging by the opening weekend, it is destined to be a hit. Sustaining the level of interest and the high quality craftsmanship may be an arduous task. One thing I’ve learned in the years since the first Potter film until now is this: J.K.Rowling knows how to tell a story and is smart enough to hire the right people to put that story on film.