“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”: a whimsical and earnest fantasy adventure

Erin Bockenstedt, Staff Writer

To be honest, I am not the biggest Harry Potter fan. Although I have seen all eight of the movies and consider myself a proud Ravenclaw, I have not gotten past the first book and I do not know the depths of backstory that goes into the rich wizarding world created by J.K. Rowling.

Thankfully, you do not need to be diehard Potterhead to see and enjoy the immensely charming sorta-prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” You can go in not even knowing that Harry Potter is a thing and come out satisfied and entertained.

Set in 1926, over 70 years before the events of the Potter series, “Fantastic Beasts” tells the story of a new hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is researching and caring for magical creatures that reside within a magic suitcase that he carries everywhere. Newt has been traveling the world to write a book about these creatures, and makes a stop in New York City. While there, a series of mishaps leads Newt to accidentally get his suitcase switched with that of a struggling baker and “No-Maj” (the American term for a non-magic user) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

This mistake brings Newt into contact with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an employee at the Magical Congress of the United States of America, as well as her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). While all this is happening, a MACUSA employee named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) seeks out the source of a mass of dark magic called an Obscurus, with the help of an abused boy named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).

That’s a lot of plot, but the movie is never muddled or confusing. The script, written by Rowling, is well done and tight, and the movie never overstays its welcome due to a mixture of a lovely cast, fun dialogue, and excellent production design, as well as good direction from David Yates, who also directed Potter films five through eight.

The cast is especially what kept my interest. The main quartet of Newt, Jacob, Tina and Queenie are all unique and memorable characters because of their actors. As Newt, Redmayne is absolutely charming and lovable, despite us not being told a lot about Newt’s past (there will be four more movies, after all). His realistically awkward disposition, sweet smile, and soft-spoken delivery make for a wonderful new lead that I am excited to see more of. Fogler, as Jacob, is often quite marvelous, going past the stereotypical “bumbling idiot” role and making Jacob into a engaging and funny audience surrogate. Tina, played by the tall and pretty Waterston, is not simply a rehash of Hermione, but is a plucky and fast-thinking woman who makes mistakes and gives her best effort. Sudol is rather radiant as Queenie, a beautiful and fascinating witch who can read minds and who proves herself to be the opposite of the “dumb blonde” trope.

The actors around the main four all bring something to the table as well. Farrell, who I have watched in many movies this year, including the excellent “The Lobster,” is typically intense as Graves, who is not all that he appears to be. Miller is crushing and at times unsettling as the damaged Credence. Carmen Ejogo, although only in a handful of scenes, exudes poise and coolness as MACUSA president Seraphina Picquery. The only real misstep is by Samantha Morton as Credence’s adoptive mother Mary Lou, as she plays the “Abusive Orphanage Matron” role a little too on-the-nose.

One of the film’s major strengths is the display of the wonder and spectacle of the wizarding world. Like I mentioned before, not knowing anything about the Harry Potter universe will not stop you from being delighted by all the uses of magic. Some of the best scenes are the ones that take place literally inside Newt’s suitcase, which is almost its own little world made to hold all of Newt’s magical creatures. The notable special effects, as well as seeing Newt’s adorable interactions with the beasts, made me grin.

Despite the overall eccentric tone, the film is not afraid to show the darker side of magic either. The Obscurus is a dark force that destroys nearly everything in its wake and it can also do fatal damage to people. Sometimes the switch in tones is jarring, but it never takes away from the story.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is the attention to detail of the 1920s setting. From the clothes to buildings to cars, the human and wizarding worlds of Roaring Twenties New York is lived-in and intricate.

If you are a dedicated Potter fan, there is still a lot to chew on. Even with only my basic knowledge of the films, I still recognized names like Albus Dumbledore and Lestrange. I also smiled just a little when hearing Hedwig’s theme when the Warner Brothers logo appeared.

Whether you are new to the wizarding world or a longtime devotee, there is something for everyone to enjoy about “Fantastic Beasts.” It is an enchanting period fantasy that will leave you with a smile on your face and a glow in your heart.

Final Verdict: 9.5 out of 10

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Josh Cowdery, Ronan Raftery, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Johnny Depp, Zoe Kravitz