The first of five instalments in a new spin-off of the incredibly popular Harry Potter film series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a flawed but engaging piece of Jazz Age fantasy spectacle. Directed by franchise veteran David Yates, the film’s screenplay is loosely adapted from J.K Rowling’s 2001 book of the same name by J.K. Rowling herself, marking the British author’s screenwriting debut. Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a gangly, Hogwarts-educated magizoologist recently arrived in 1920s-era New York, ostensibly to meet with a local Appaloosa Puffskein breeder.
An opening montage of magical newspaper headlines serves to establish that the international wizarding community is in turmoil following a series of attacks by dangerous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. Grindelwald’s escape from custody in Europe and the existence of a local anti-witch and wizard extremist group known as the Second Salemers have the MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America) and its President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) on high alert when Newt arrives at Ellis Island in 1926 bearing a battered leather case containing a host of fantastic beasts.
When Newt allows himself to be briefly distracted by the vitriolic street-side speechifying of puritanical Second Salemers leader Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) one of these beasts, an adorably avaricious, platypus-like creature known as a Niffler, escapes into a nearby bank. In his frenzied attempts to retrieve the Niffler Newt accidentally swaps cases with big-hearted No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who unknowingly releases several more magical beasts onto the streets of New York. Hoping to impress President Picquery and Auror Director Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), disgraced former Auror Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) arrests Newt for violating the Statute of Secrecy, only to be embarrassed when his case is opened to reveal nothing more than a selection of delicious pastries.
Tina ends up taking Newt and Jacob home to the apartment she shares with her flirtatious, slightly loony Legilimens sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). While Newt and Jacob set out to track down the former’s missing beasts Graves has a clandestine conversation with Mary Lou Barebone’s adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). After a mysterious magical force attacks and kills the senator son of influential newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) Graves arrests Newt and Tina and sentences them to death. Newt’s screaming protests that an Obscurus (a parasitical magical entity that develops within and eventually consumes children who attempt to suppress their magic), rather than one of his magical beasts is responsible for the crime are ignored.
The fact that the main characters of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are accomplished adult wizards rather than secondary school students means the audience is treated to some truly dazzling displays of witchcraft and wizardry. This includes not just the explosive, city-block destroying confrontation in the film’s final act, but also smaller things like Queenie charming ingredients into an apple strudel or Newt nonchalantly reassembling an entire room brick by brick with a flick of his wand. Sumptuous set design and period costuming add to the visual splendour, but ultimately aren’t enough to distract attention from the weaknesses of Rowling’s bloated, unfocused script as the first time screenwriter prioritizes world-building details over fundamental narrative structure.
Fortunately the world Rowling builds is so vibrant and whimsical that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is still enormously enjoyable despite its structural issues. Eddie Redmayne is instantly loveable as earnest eccentric Newt Scamander and the fact that the core cast all appear well suited to their respective roles is a positive sign for the future of the franchise.