Although set in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, 'Fantastic Beasts' is an entirely original and worthwhile beast of its own. Made for not only 'Harry Potter' fans, but those who enjoy inventive magic and '20s gumshoe detective tales.

Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Can you believe that five whole years have passed since we last stepped foot into the cinematic Wizarding World of Harry Potter? I remember walking into Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and thinking to myself, ‘It’s over. This is the last time that I’ll experience the world of Harry Potter for the first time.’ Lo and behold, here we are. Without the need of a time-turner, the Wizarding World is not only on big screen again, but it’s new and refreshing. Without feeling like a forced follow-up to the franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fills in the void left by the Harry Potter series – but not without giving us some unforeseeable surprises and twists.

Aside from the casting, Fantastic Beasts reunites the Harry Potter filmmaking gang. David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter movies, has returned to the helm. The producing crew is back. And J.K. Rowling even penned the original screenplay. The combination of this tour de force team and the fact that Potterheads have been chomping at the bit for brand new content deservedly poises Fantastic Beasts as one of 2016’s very biggest box office hits.

While Rowling wrote and released a small textbook with the title “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the film tells a new tale about new characters in a new world. Much of the magic in the world feels the same, but there’s also a lot of unfamiliarity and surprise to uncover.

Set in 1926, the story follows four principle characters, the lead of which is a fish-out-of-water by the name of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything). After traveling the globe and studying magical creatures thought to be extremely dangerous, the English wizard arrives in New York City during a time of high alert and unrest. An on-the-loose evil wizard has placed the American wizarding leaders on edge. They not only fear his threatening power, but worry that his evildoing will reveal them to the “non-maj” (aka, “muggle” – aka, “non-magic”) world around them. With magical beasts outlawed in the United States, should the American equivalent to Britain’s Ministry of Magic learn that Newt’s suitcase is full of wonderful and seemingly frightening beasts, then he’ll find himself in deep trouble with terrible consequences.

When the faulty latches on Newt’s suitcase allow some of the beasts to escape and roam free in New York City, he sets off to contain them before they can get him into trouble. Luckily, he quickly encounters a fellow wizard by the name of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice). As a former investigator for the ministry, she senses that something is awry with Newt and joins him. Also aiding in their rogue mission is Tina’s magical sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a non-maj aspiring baker by the name of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although based in the same world as the Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts has a familiar, yet drastically different feel to it. First, there’s the setting. 1920s New York City is quite different from modern day Hogwarts. Second is the character dynamic. Although both films feature a group of good wizards on a noble quest in a world filled with danger, Newt, Tina, Queenie and Jacob are far from being school-age kids. Their dynamic is quite unlike that of Harry, Ron and Hermione – which is a good thing! Instead of feeling like a rehash of the Harry Potter relationships (although they worked oh-so well in the Harry Potter films), these characters give us something new. The result is the polar opposite of how Marvel applies formulas to their superhero movies, which makes Fantastic Beasts refreshing.

And the third big game changer is the tone. The setting is very unsettling. The uneasy feeling that exists in America’s wizarding community strongly carries over to the big screen. Things aren’t right. It’s not safe out there. There’s a lot more gloom and darkness in the world than is ever spoken about. As an audience, we sense the gravity before the characters do. But despite this feeling of impending doom, Fantastic Beasts never feels overly dark – and certainly not as dark as the final few Harry Potter films. There are plenty of tense sequence, but the delightful cream filling between them keeps it light. This is all thanks to the noir-ish gumshoe vibe, extremely likeable character dynamics and smile-inducing settings. It’s going to get tense, but you’ll never stop enjoying yourself.

While the story that it tells is complete, there’s a lot of set-up in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For the time being, we know that we’re getting four more additions to the Fantastic Beasts saga, making it a five-picture franchise. After seeing how Rowling perfectly crafted a wonderfully complete grand tale through the seven Harry Potter books, we can count on seeing lots of the seemingly insignificant events, items, characters and creatures in Fantastic Beasts come back with significance in the sequels.

Any and every fan of J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World should entirely appreciate and enjoy Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The only fans that I foresee being disappointed are those that want just another rehash of the Harry Potter movies. That is not what you’re getting here. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an enjoyable beast of its own. It doesn’t rely on the merits of Harry Potter; it’s purely fantastic doing its own thing.

Photo credit: Warner Bros.

4 out of 5

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