Certificate 12A, 133 minutes
Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is inspired - rather than being truly based - on the book of the same name by J. K. Rowling (writing under the penname of Newt Scamander), which is a textbook from the Harry Potter universe, one which the students at Hogwarts studied. It opens with a group of wizards approaching someone with their wands drawn, before all being knocked down - and possibly killed - in a burst of magic. This magic came from one person, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, a wizard mentioned in the Harry Potter books and described as being only second to Lord Voldemort as the most dangerous wizard of all time, as well as becoming an important figure in the back-story. The introductory credits, which see pages from magical newspapers, have lots of headlines about Grindelwald (as well as some interesting interactive adverts), who seems to be trying to incite trouble between the wizarding and non-wizarding worlds. Then, nothing more about him.
Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fantastic_Beasts_and_Where_to_Find_Them_poster.pngNewt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, Jupiter Ascending, The Theory of Everything) is a British wizard (who was expelled from Hogwarts) who is arriving in 1920s New York with a magical suitcase. Magical, because inside it he has a whole host of magical creatures. Whilst walking through New York, he stops to listen to Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society ranting on about witches and how they need to be dealt with from some steps outside a bank. Mary Lou does not seem to be a particularly nice person, not merely from this but for how she is seen to treat her adopted children throughout the film. Whilst he is listening, he is bumped into by Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an ex-serviceman who is going to the bank to see about a loan to open a bakery. Kowalski has a case that looks identical to Newt's, and it can be guessed that this will be significant. Also whilst Newt is listening, one of the creatures from inside the case, a Niffler, escapes and starts helping itself to every shiny, and valuable, thing that it can find.
During Newt's attempts to catch the Niffler, he meets Kowalski again. In the ensuing confusion, Kowalski witnesses magic, but manages to escape before Newt can obliterate his memory of seeing magic. Naturally, and to no great surprise, he also takes the wrong case with him. Newt, meanwhile, has been arrested by ex-Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who has been recently demoted to a less important position at the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) and isn't getting a lot of respect. Kowalski opens the case he has, and several of the creatures accidentally get loose.
Graves (Colin Farrell), who seems to have an important position at MACUSA, had been investigating an attack where what was described as a dark fog with eyes destroyed a building. Whilst he, and the police, were at the scene, something flees and rips apart the street in the process. Graves seems to have his own plans for something; he is having Credence (Ezra Miller), the oldest of Mary Lou's adopted children look for a child for him, a child he says will be under ten years old and who he says is very important. Credence does not seem to possess his adopted mother's hatred of witches and wizards, and Graves is promising him a place in the wizarding world.
There are a lot of tensions between the magical and non-magical communities in America, even if the latter don't definitely know that the former exists. Any relationship between the magical and "No-Maj" (non magical; Muggles in the English parlance) is forbidden. The mages are on the verge of being discovered, which could lead to outright war; something that Grindelwald wants to encourage. Magical beasts are also not exactly welcome either. Newt's approach to them is rather similar to what Hagrid's will be (and Newt himself has a few similarities to Hagrid). He doesn't see them as a threat, and has spent years finding them, with the intention of writing a book about them. Tina's first response to this is to ask if it's a book on how to exterminate them.
Newt has to find the creatures that escaped from his case, which are being blamed for a number of attacks in New York. Tina, who hasn't really come to terms with her demotion, takes him, and Kowalski in. Tina's sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Legilimens (able to see the thoughts of others) who isn't the blonde ditz she might seem to be, also seems rather taken with Jacob. Newt has to find his creatures, and the others do help, albeit initially fairly reluctantly in Tina's case, although Kowalski is enjoying his exposure to the wizarding world. During the process, they come across greater plots.
There are quite a few different strands to the film. There is the dark wizard Grindelwald, Newt's escaped creatures, whatever is actually tearing up New York and whatever Graves is plotting. These strands do not start coming together for some time, at which point everything starts coming together quite nicely.
The film is available in 2D and 3D, with the 2D version being the one seen although, given the amount and type of special effects, this is probably a live action film that would have worked in 3D. The effects themselves, especially of Newt's various magical creatures, are enjoyable to behold.
Fantastic Beasts is not really a prequel to the Harry Potter films; instead it's a spin-off that's set prior to them. Grindelwald may be an important historical figure and back-story element for the Harry Potter series, but he isn't really directly part of the story. A true prequel would probably need to be about Voldemort; however, this isn't intended to be a prequel and doesn't try to be one. Instead, it adds more depth - and countries - to the Harry Potter universe. The whole feel is therefore different - it isn't set in a school of magic for one thing, but is more directly involved in the world of Muggles - and also sometimes the same.
Some of the characters seem rather under-utilised, such as newspaperman Henry Shaw (Jon Voight) and his two sons, Langdon (Ronan Raftery), who also works for his newspaper, and eldest son Henry Shaw Jr, a U.S. Senator (Josh Cowdery). Their introduction, and certain events, give the impression that they are going to have a noticeable effect on the plot, yet they don't; they are basically just background scenery. There are also elements of back-story that are not covered in the depth that they could be, such as Newt's prior relationship with Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz, After Earth, The Divergent Series: Allegiant). Perhaps some of these, and other elements, will be explored in the sequels; after all, there are five planned for the series for which this is the first.
With other characters, more attention is paid, which leads to occasionally humorous touches, especially between Newt and Kowalski and the latter himself is an interesting character, dragged into a world he has no knowledge of yet in which he copes pretty well - and has fun doing so. Tina's slow approval of Newt, and Newt's own shy behaviour, as well as his obvious love of the creatures he finds - a definite counter to how other wizards perceive them - add an element of chemistry to the film. There are some sad bits to the film, and some elements don't turn out the way that would be expected, and others which do, albeit in a different way. All in all, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a good start to the new series, a film that maintains the flavour of Harry Potter and yet manages to be different in tone at the same time.