*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some fantasy action violence)
Released: November 18, 2016
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight

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2016 Academy Award winner for Best Costume Design

Accio Prequelnum!

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a magical re-entry into the Wizarding World, roughly seventy-five years prior to The Boy Who Lived. Muggles will bring a ton of goodwill to this expansion of the Potterverse, and that affection is rewarded from start to (mostly) finish. Yet while J.K. Rowling clearly has many new stories to tell, she really has nothing new to say.

Perhaps the best thing going for this reboot is that we don’t know the story. We’re familiar with the world’s rules but, with only a “textbook” by the same title to go on, we’re not entering with preconceived notions of what’s to come. That’s a huge advantage, and one I won’t spoil for you.

Also gone (and for the good) is the “hero’s journey” construct that served as a spine for the Harry Potter saga. It worked then, even powerfully, but it didn’t need to be rehashed, especially given how most other franchises (particularly of the YA variety) have collectively run it into the ground. The Fate of Everything is not on the shoulders of a “One”. Instead, we have a charmingly innocent and unassuming Magizoologist with an ever-present glint of mischief in his eye.

His name is Newt Scamander, and in December of 1926 he arrives in New York City near the end of a global expedition. He’s researching (and occasionally capturing) supernatural creatures in their natural habitats.

His covert fantastical safari is sidetracked when a Muggle fanatical hate group called The New Salem Philanthropic Society (NSPS) begins to speak out. It’s led by a puritanical No-Maj (that’s what non-magical people are called in the United States) who’s set on exposing witches and wizards to the world, and then persecuting them. Her name is Mary Lou, and she’s like a dead-serious Church Lady with a deep sadistic streak.

The Magical Congress of the United States of America (the US version of the Ministry of Magic) is tracking the NSPS’s escalating activity. More dire, as the film opens, the baddest Dark Wizard pre-Voldemort – Gellert Grindelwald – is rumored to be on the rise. Needless to say this all comes to a head, even as Scamander searches the city for his fantastic beasts.

Joining Scamander is Porpentina Goldstein, a marginalized Magical Congress investigator looking for some redemption, and her flirty blonde bombshell sister Queenie who can read minds. Tagging along is Jacob Kowalski, a forlorn No-Maj would-be baker who stumbles into this adventure but quickly becomes a loyal (and comical) ally.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feels its most fresh, fun, and alive when it’s acting out its title. Scamander’s pursuit of these creatures, which range from the obnoxiously amusing to gigantic and fierce (and occasionally majestic), involve wonderfully staged sequences and a full blockbuster display of director David Yates’ digital wand.

They’re also the scenes that Oscar-winning star Eddie Redmayne – who couldn’t be more perfect as Scamander, the franchise’s new hero – seems to relish the most. Newt’s personal connection to some of the creatures makes for nice tender moments as well, and future installments would do well to play them up even more.

Where the story plays stale is in its darker, more serious plot threads and broader mythology building. While it does involve a good deal of narrative intrigue, the thematic undercurrent is the same-old same-old symbolism: Magicians on the cultural margins, which parallels our real modern world’s disenfranchised minorities for any number of bigoted reasons (you name the “ism” or “phobia”, and that’s the metaphor).

That theme certainly remains relevant, but here it’s beginning to feel like forced import. After eight Potter movies that mined identical territory – not to mention a whole X-Men franchise that taps into the same exact issue – this plight is redundant, particularly as it’s the only existential crisis that the movie has on its mind. What’s missing here isn’t Harry Potter; it’s new ideas.

Yet even as those familiar anxieties are belabored too much on occasion, they don’t undercut or suck the life out of a return to this beloved mythos that continues to reap entertaining rewards, and show future promise. The climax, it’s good to report, really pays off (and will have people talking), plus two sentimental epilogues that follow bring an emotional closure to the character connections that serve as the movie’s heart and soul.

If anyone had concerns over news that this series will be a five-film saga (boosted from the originally announced trilogy), Fantastic Beasts should allay those fears, particularly as iconic characters are name-dropped; the stage is set for subsequent movies to dramatize a history that Dumbledore once only spoke of. Rowling’s imagination is as deep and full of possibilities as ever, even more than Scamander’s briefcase.

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