By Elisa Rossi
“Is anyone safe?” That alarmed question nearly shrieks off a newspaper in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” rattling the story almost before it’s begun. A big, splashy footnote to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter screen series, it opens a new subdivision in the wizardry world that she created, even as it turns back the clock. Unlike Harry’s reality, which unfolds in a present that looks like ours but with dragons, “Fantastic Beasts” takes place in a 1926 New York, where dark forces cut swaths of destruction alongside chugging Model T’s. Ms. Rowling is just getting revved up, but her time frame suggests her sights are on another world catastrophe.
Some of the behind-the-scenes gang are back, including the director David Yates, who has brought some of his old Potter crew with him and gives this new machine a steady, smooth hand. Steve Kloves, who adapted most of the Potter movies with a light, charmed touch, has returned as a producer, while Ms. Rowling has taken sole screenwriting credit. It’s no wonder that this fantasy — with its cheery enchantments and portentous inky swirls, its steely grays and tight pacing — feels familiar. We’ve been here, done that (at least some of it), except that this time out the wizard isn’t a boy on the verge of manhood but a man idling in boyhood, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).
Ms. Rowling has built her script on the thin foundation of her 2001 bestiary, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which purports to be a duplicate of a textbook from Hogwarts, Harry’s school of witchcraft and wizardry. It’s a slender volume, adorned with childish scrawls (“you liar”) and filled with descriptions of creatures like the winged doxy and a dragon known as the antipodean opaleye. Given the expanding Potter universe — this is the first of five projected “Fantastic Beasts” features — the book could pass for a product catalog for potential merch, one that Ms. Rowling embellishes with comedic passages, glimmers of romance and parallel action scenes.
For some reason or another (including a change of scenery), Newt has landed in New York, where some folks tawk funny and trains run on elevated tracks. He’s soon swept up in assorted goings-on, some involving the incorrigible, free-ranging beasts that have slipped out of his suitcase, others involving homegrown wizards and witches, as well as the humans who loathe and fear their magical ways. As in Harry’s world, something terrible is intent on stirring up trouble — here, knocking down buildings, tearing up cobblestone streets — although presumably it will take another four movies before all is revealed. This little party’s just beginning.
As promised, the title critters in “Fantastic Beasts” are whimsically entertaining and occasionally as entrancing as those animals both real and imagined crawling through a medieval illuminated manuscript, with their gaudy hues and hints of gold. Newt is a British magizoologist, a collector-protector of exotic animals, and is en route home from his travels scooping up specimens. He’s the custodian of one beast that resembles a giant eagle (with a dash of a risen phoenix) and a purplish snake that looks as if it started out as a peacock before changing its mind during incubation, which is how a pair of wings ended up fluttering near its coiling tail.
With the strange caws and showy displays, these beasties provide a lot of the movie’s easygoing pleasures. The adults are rather less engaging. There’s pathos in Newt’s mission to save these furred and feathered beings, an honorable calling that serves as a bewitched if overly tidy and cute vision of our own better natures. Yet there’s something fundamentally generic about Newt, with his flapping feet and innocuous eccentricities. The beasts give him a reason for being — while the story’s turns give him a nice workout — but he doesn’t come across as meaningfully burdened; mostly he engages in slapstick nonsense and goes doe-eyed at an ally (Katherine Waterston).
The characters stealing along the periphery tug harder on the imagination, notably Mary Lou Barebone (a creepily effective Samantha Morton), an anti-magic proselytizer spreading old-fashioned fire, brimstone and intolerance on city streets. Unlike the Potter movies, which grew darker and heavier as Harry and the series developed, “Fantastic Beasts” is playing peekaboo with the abyss right from the start. Particularly striking in this respect are the furtive meetings between one of Mary Lou’s charges, Credence (Ezra Miller, bringing to mind a lost Addams Family relative), and a charismatic enigma, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, doing much with little), with uncertain designs.
These scenes read like sexual predation, especially when Mr. Farrell’s character leans close to Mr. Miller’s, his voice seductively purring as their two black silhouettes nearly blur into one. They’re especially unsettling because they play into deeply noxious stereotypes that can still emerge when an older man meets a sensitive lad in the shadows, a suggestion that is further complicated by the movie’s free-floating Fascist iconography. With his slicked, shaved hair and swirling black coat, Percival looks a few alterations and goose steps away from the Waffen-SS. It’s no wonder that I miss Harry and the rest of the kids: Where’s the new generation that’s ready to fight?
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for magical evil and all that it suggests. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director David Yates Writer J.K. Rowling Stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell Rating PG-13 Running Time 2h 13m Genres Adventure, Family, Fantasy.