Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

★★★ ½
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I suspect that, for a while at least, it’s going to be difficult to avoid processing every halfway applicable film through the nightmare lens of the recent elections. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe, opens with a montage of headlines. “Anti-Wizard Sentiment Sweeps America,” reads one swirling paper as we’re introduced to the setup.

In the movie’s alternate history, it’s 1926 in New York City, and hateful fringe groups are agitating for the deportation of all witches and wizards, the current threat to Our Great Nation. At one point, the newspaper headlines switch to German, then we fade to an image of the Statue of Liberty. Goddamn it, is every onscreen scenario like this going to make my stomach hurt for the next four years?

Moving on: Fantastic Beasts, an original script by Rowling adapted from the 2001 footnote to the Harry Potter series, returns us to her richly imagined world of wizardry and witchcraft. Eddie Redmayne takes the wheel as our new hero, Newt Scamander, an eccentric British mage who has sailed to America with his marvelous, magical suitcase.

Newt is an animal advocate of extreme passion, and that suitcase is filled with all manner of, yes, fantastic beasts. The extra-dimensional realm within Newt’s luggage is one of the film’s many visual extravaganzas. There’s a whole world in there, packed with magical creatures from the savannas to the mountains.

The trouble begins when several of these creatures escape into old New York, prompting urban adventures with demoted American auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and profoundly confused Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an aspiring baker who’s along for the ride of his life. Our heroes soon run afoul of the American wizarding authorities, who are debating their own public policies in regard to Muggle relations. There’s plenty of allegory in Beasts, if you want to tune in …

Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter movies, brings a lighter tone to the new movie, which is entirely welcome—those last few movies were awfully grim. Redmayne is a compelling new hero, and his performance here is a delight of oddball physicality. He walks like a duck, for one thing. As the eager and kindhearted auror, Waterston (daughter of Sam) is completely engaging; she reveals many layers, and may be concealing more. Tina’s younger sister Queenie, played by musician Alison Sudol, is also delightful. But Fogler really steals the show as the lovable sad sack Kowalski. He’s got all the movie’s best laughs.

I’m genuinely looking forward to following these new core characters through the Beasts series, now planned for five films. This group of childlike adults can plausibly fit into the shoes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. But I’m not looking forward to figuring out future story lines, if they’re as confusing as what we’re given here. Rowling’s expansive myth making can easily get unwieldy, as evidenced by the resolution of the Potter books, which very nearly collapsed under their own weight. Beasts starts out confusing, then stays that way for two hours and thirteen minutes. Look, red herrings are fantastic beasts, too, but they need to be properly deployed. At the film’s halfway point, I realized I had no idea who the villain was. By the end, things weren’t much clearer.

Still, Muggles who appreciate the grand modern mythology that Rowling has bequeathed to us—I’m one of them—should not miss Fantastic Beasts. It’s a promising start to the new series, packed with imaginative ideas and fabulous visual flourishes. If the political allegory is a little heavy-handed, maybe that’s a good thing. Evidently, a good portion of the U.S. electorate has trouble spotting the actual existential threats to our country.