“Anything edible in there?”
The query, by a 1926 New York City customs official, is directed toward a somewhat befuddled British arrival with a shock of red hair who goes by the name Newt Scamander. And truth be told, there is nothing in the valise in question that I imagine anyone in his or her right mind would want to eat.
The suitcase does however contain: a nifler (a platypusial creature with a fondness for snatching shiny objects); an erumpent (rhino-like when it comes to size and temperament and, inconveniently, in heat); several occamy (winged serpents with an aptitude for size-shifting); a demiguise (simian, and blessed with powers of invisibility and precognition); a thunderbird (pretty much what is sounds like, only larger); and a variety of other, shall we say, fantastic beasts.
And I suppose we might as well say that, because the title of the film is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A spinoff of J.K. Rowling’s universe-transcending Harry Potter series, it is very loosely based on a fictional “textbook” of the same name that Rowling published in 2001. The conceit of the movie is that Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is in the process of compiling said textbook by collecting and cataloguing various magical fauna. Or, as he himself describes his mission: “Rescue, nurture, and protect them. And gently try to educate my fellow wizards about them.” Picture a Hogwartian Dr. Doolittle and you won’t be far off.
Alas, shortly after his arrival stateside, Newt mixes up his suitcase with that of a No-Maj—this is the American term for “muggle,” or non-magical individual, we colonials being rather more literal than our British cousins—named Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an amiable cannery worker who aspires to open a bakery. Inevitably, several of the creatures escape and begin causing minor mischief in Manhattan.
But they are not the only otherworldly beings that are afoot (a-claw? a-wing?) in the city. Something far more powerful and sinister has been tearing its way through the pre-war buildings and cobbled streets, in the process setting the local wizard higher-ups—played by Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell—on high alert. Worse still, an anti-witchcraft movement, the “Second Salemers,” is on the march. The stage is set for a civil war between the magical and No-Maj communities, a civil war it appears someone may be secretly trying to stoke.
So it falls to Newt to restore the missing beasts to his luggage—which, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, is much larger on the inside than it is on the outside—while also persuading everyone that he is not the would-be war-stoker. In these tasks he is aided by an unlikely trio: the No-Maj Kowalski; Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a sympathetic investigator for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA, which whether or not by coincidence is pronounced an awful lot like “yakuza”); and her kind but flighty sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).
To its considerable credit, Fantastic Beasts is not the Potter retread it could easily—and very profitably—have been. There are echoes, of course: MACUSA bears a notable resemblance to the Ministry of Magic, and the script, by Rowling herself, features one or two pleasantly Rowlingesque reversals. But overall the film charts a new path through familiar magical terrain. Instead of schoolchildren learning their craft, the protagonists here are fully formed wizards—with the exception of Kowalski, the No-Maj, who is himself a welcome addition.
And of course, we have traded a Hogwarts tucked away in the Scottish Highlands for the urban bustle of pre-depression New York. This Americanization of the Potter canon is no doubt smart business. (Likewise, the presence of so great a volume of toy-ready beasties.) But for the most part the new setting is refreshing, with period details lovingly applied by the movie’s director, David Yates, who also helmed the last four Potter movies. If there’s a flaw in the transatlantic translation, it’s that it seems also to have entailed a customarily overwrought CGI climax, in which Fantastic Beasts demolishes the 1926 Big Apple as comprehensively as The Avengers did the 2012 version.
Apart from that, the film’s largest shortcoming is that it feels like three hours of material squeezed into a two-hour running time. And while this was true of most of the Potter films as well, they at least had the books to lean upon for anyone inclined to take a deeper plunge. There are numerous elements here that could have used further unpacking: the plight of the wretched children enlisted into the Second Salemers by the group’s fanatical leader (a sorely underutilized Samantha Morton); a wafer-thin storyline involving a newspaper magnate (Jon Voight) and his two sons; and a charming but slight romantic subplot between Kowalski and Queenie.
But even if the characters are somewhat underdeveloped, the cast does what it can to bring them to life. Redmayne is excellent as the committed but awkward magizoologist Newt, his eyes shying away from direct contact whenever possible. Fogler (Balls of Fury) is lovably lunky as Kowalski, and singer-songwriter Sudol is an unexpectedly charismatic presence as Queenie. Among the principal quartet, only Waterston’s Tina fails to make a deep impression, and this is a consequence more of the script than of her performance.
But never fear. There is time enough ahead (and more) to get to know these characters, to learn about Newt’s mysterious past love and discover whether Queenie and Kowalski have romance in their future. Originally proposed as the opening chapter of a trilogy, Fantastic Beasts has already been upgraded to serve as the first of a planned five-movie series. What could be more American than that?