"Witches live among us."
Directed by four-time Harry Potter franchise stalwart David Yates and featuring an original story by author J.K. Rowling (in her first screenwriting credit), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a mostly worthy if light adventure prequel to the Hogwarts wizarding world of movie magic we already know. Set in 1926 New York City, the magical realm is rife with fear, violence, and political unrest as one visiting wizard accidentally unleashes a cadre of his titular beasts onto the city streets while another dark threat permeates the American wizarding community.
Eddie Redmayne stars an awkward and aloof Newt Scamander, possibly a strange choice of character for a magical lead, alongside an overeager but very charming Katherine Waterston as an American magic law enforcement official. Comedian Dan Fogler serves as a non-magical (or "no-maj") comedic foil alongside Alison Sudol as Waterston' sister who are all along for the ride. Redmayne's Newt gives an odd, 1990s Hugh Grant romantic comedy style, lead performance overshadowed by many of the film's magical elements and more dynamic characters around him.
Both Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller give two of easily the most interesting, possibly villainous performances as their characters and motivations remain largely unclear and mysterious until the final act. Farrell is commanding, stoic, and authoritatively menacing whenever he appears on screen while Miller is unsettling yet sympathetic as an abused orphan who offers a key element to the untangling plot.
Perhaps the least interesting part of the film is the advertised "beasts" and CGI creatures as they are, while amusing, ultimately secondary to the sterling cast and splendid period setting. Rowling sets the film as mostly a standalone adventure in the mould of the early Harry Potter books as she introduces new concepts, various references, and aforementioned lore. A new element of suppressed magic manifesting as an evil forced called the "Obscurus" in children becomes more central to the story echoing our contemporary climate of public paranoia and political uncertainty.
Fantastic Beasts' first entry brings enough magic and charm to the table while re-introducing us to the world of wizardry in a period setting. Yates, Rowling, and company do enough to whet our appetite for the idea of more cinematic magic. While familiar, the film brings enough fresh elements while teasing the greater wizarding history of Rowling's twentieth century. It's a promising enough, if not entirely magical, start to a new wizard franchise.
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