Newt Scamander glances through a bank teller’s window to see one of his magical creatures — a niffler, to be precise — rolling away from him on the bottom shelf of a cart laden with money. The little guy is growing happier by the moment, living his best life on a great niffler adventure. As Scamander peers through the bars, the wizard remains slightly panicked (appropriately, as this is very, very bad for him) but something else crosses his face, too. At first it might seem like befuddlement, but look again — it’s pure, reckless delight.
That one moment, a single terrific shot in a movie full of them, makes for a great summation of the joys of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a little fantasy flick from a first-time screenwriter named J.K. Rowling. Yet this isn’t a film made of light alone. It captures a dark time in global history, paralleled by a dark time in the history of the world Rowling has built, all the while delicately drawing out some of the darkness found in our present. There’s something sad, frightening, or even disturbing around nearly every corner. Still, there’s delight in the world, and it’s hardly in short supply.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, thoroughly enjoyable) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures and, mostly, without a clue. His unabashed wizardishness catches the eye of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a member of M.A.C.U.S.A., the U.S. version of the Ministry of Magic. Before she can reach him, he’s lost the aforementioned niffler, apparated through a few walls, and left a suitcase full of trouble in the hands of veteran and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). From there, the trouble starts — or it would, if the trouble (up to and including the looming menace of war) hadn’t already started.
Fantasy stories often center around an avatar of sorts, a figure there to serve as our gateway into a world we don’t know. In the Harry Potter series, it was Harry himself; he joined a roster that includes several hobbits and a Hunger Games contestant, to name a recent few. In Fantastic Beasts, we ostensibly have two — fitting for a film that will be seen by Potter fanatics and newcomers alike. On the one hand, there’s Scamander, who isn’t new to the wizarding world but lands in a culture very different from his own (and he’s an oddball back in Britain, too). On the other, there’s Kowalski, a nice guy caught up in a remarkable world. While Redmayne admirably anchors the movie, putting his natural aw-shucks nice guy presence to excellent use, it’s Fogler who really serves as its heart, offering both comic relief and a sense of joy and wonder that permeates the film.
It’s fortunate that Jacob Kowalski exists, because the wizards of Fantastic Beasts don’t have much joy left in their lives. The shadow of war hangs over the film — one they’ve left behind, one on the horizon — as does the presence of Gellert Grindelwald, a fanatical dark wizard who reads as a stand-in for Hitler. As if the New York wizarding community didn’t have enough darkness to endure, they also have to contend with a community hell-bent on rooting out witches to destroy them (led by Samantha Morton, who should really make more movies, please), a stigma attached to all relationships between magical and non-magical persons, and a flat ban on the breeding of magical creatures. Waterston, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo — they’re all tasked to bring to life people whose daily existence is one of fear and sadness, when into their lives storm a pack of magical creatures who’ll make things worse (unless they make them better).
If the actors, the political underpinnings, and the gloomy cinematography serve to emphasize the sorrow, then it’s the aforementioned creatures that offer up much of the film’s considerable delight. While there’s a moment or two spent in the uncanny valley, the effects are largely wonderful, visually sumptuous and whimsical without growing irritating. Each creature has personality to spare, and it’s easy to fall in love with the lot of them, as Scamander so clearly has. His greatest passion is the protection of these wonderful beasts, and within minutes, he’s enlisted the audience in his cause. They escaped and must be recaptured, not because they’re a danger to humans, but because we’re a danger to them.
Rowling and director David Yates have accomplished something remarkable here, and the beasts are key to that accomplishment — they have, honest to God, created a delightful adventure movie that doubles as a franchise launching pad, and they did it by adapting a fictional textbook. This movie works both as a terrific piece of visual storytelling and a zoological guide. The creatures are not incidental. Sure, there’s a larger wizarding world, and Yates brings it to life as well as he has in any of his four previous Potter films; indeed, this may be the most successful of the five. But the pair set out to make a movie of a textbook, and somehow, they succeeded.
Not everything works, and unfortunately, those things can’t be easily discussed without diving into major spoiler territory. Any franchise-starter needs to leave threads dangling, and while most feel organic, there’s a big one that has the potential to completely eject viewers (as it did this writer) from the world Yates has spent two hours building. It’s a hugely important moment for the films to come, and yet it’s reduced to something closer to a cameo. It’s not about the story, but about the business of selling tickets for movies to come. Perhaps more problematic is that the twist tied to this moment can be spotted in the first few minutes of the movie, by both Potter scholars and filmgoers with an eye for detail. This isn’t a writer’s error, but a director’s, and it’s a major misstep in a movie with a scarcity of them.
Still, it’s a sour note that still can’t entirely spoil the minutes that remain. The world of the movie and the world in which we live are both deeply troubled and sometimes frightening. Into both that world and ours walks Scamander and his case, and flaws aside, it’s hard to be anything but grateful for that. There’s beauty in the world, and it can be easy to overlook in times of trouble, but artists like J.K. Rowling will do their best to never let us forget—and to, once in a while, transport us somewhere else entirely.
“I don’t think I’m dreaming,” Kowalski tells his new wizarding friend, who asks how he knows that. Eyes wide with wonder, Kowalski responds, “I ain’t got the brains to make this up.”