This magnificent movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is precisely what a spin-off prequel should be – an exploration and extrusion of ideas that the original began but never fully realised, and not a cheap imitation designed to weasel nostalgic memories from our heads like the wispy strands of brain matter in Albus Dumbledore’s Pensieve. From beginning to end, from left to right, up and down, this film is a wondrous experience. I feel enriched by it.
I enjoyed the Harry Potter series. It was well-made and steeped in an intricate mythology, but it got too bogged down by the threat of evil and ended up losing much of its early charm. Fantastic Beasts is the first of a planned series of five, and what it presents is nothing short of immense generosity. Where many films offer a handshake early on then sneakily recoil, Fantastic Beasts is a magical machine that keeps on giving, with quirky, buttoned-down characters; a myriad of bewitching creatures that are indeed fantastic; a powerful post-war, prohibition era New York; and not one but two carefully handled plots that piggyback important messages.
It opens up the Potter mythology, ships it across the Atlantic to Manhattan, introduces the American wing of the wizarding world (which is more fascinating than eight films of Daniel Radcliffe attempting to twitch his way to an acting career), and retains much, if not all of the magic of the Potter universe. Because the earlier pictures set up the rules and established them, Fantastic Beasts is able to hit the ground running and not worry about having to pause for spell-casting lessons. The language in this film, as outlandish as it is, seems almost second nature to us by now. It is able to do its thing, uninterrupted, while we sit back like foolish kids, wide-eyed and giddy.
The plot follows the misadventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a scruffy-haired, hunched-over mumbler from the UK who is on a mission to return a fantastic beast as big as a bus to its home state of Arizona. How does he do this without alerting the muggles? Why, by transporting it in his suitcase, of course. Trouble begins when Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a beguiling muggle called Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, deliciously charming), who dreams of one day opening a bakery and inadvertently unleashes the flying, slithering, crawling, jumping menagerie of Newt’s luggage upon the sleeping streets of Manhattan.
Helping the men reacquire all the animals are Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who both work for the magical sister agency of the FBI. But more sinister events are afoot, and our four heroes are plunged ever further down a tumbling chute of darkness, deception, and possibly love.
Fantastic Beasts is directed by David Yates, who helmed half the Potter series, and is written by J.K. Rowling. Together the two have formed a creative partnership that speaks the same witchy language that has developed since the end of Deathly Hallows into a blossoming covenant. Fantastic Beasts is distinct enough from the Potter films that we are not constantly thinking of them, but slips in little cosy reminders that this universe and that still share some biological resemblance. It’s like a pair of warm socks in the dead of winter.
I was afraid, being the first chapter of five, that for all its wonder the film would feel incomplete, that it would behave like a teaser for what’s to come. But in its generosity it gives us a beginning, middle and end. I cannot predict where Rowling will take these characters or how she will further involve her world of magic, and at this point I don’t really want to. I’m just grateful to be along for the ride, because what a ride it is.