The big unspoken promise of the Harry Potter books was always that Hogwarts was just one corner of a world filled with magic. While those original seven stories showed us what that world looked like through the eyes of Hogwarts students, the rest was left up to our imaginations. So the main thrill and attraction of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in opening the door and revealing a previously unknown corner of that same universe.
The reveal works. It's hard for a fan to resist being drawn into J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World when it's all so damned interesting. The double city of magical and no-maj (the American word for muggle) 1920s New York feels lived-in, kind of grimy, and convincing. As for the story itself, it feels totally different walking through this world with adults instead of children, but it introduces us to an agreeable lot of new protagonists.
Chief among them is Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne as the sort of shy academic who doesn't particularly relish conversation or eye contact. He's joined by the no-nonsense auror (magic cop) Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her flighty sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an unlikely no-maj named Jake Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Forget any love triangle nonsense, Rowling (the screenwriter here) pairs the foursome up immediately, foregoing the sort of fan shipping flame wars that attached themselves to her Potter threesome of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.
Newt arrives in New York for unknown reasons and promptly loses control of some of his "fantastic beasts," and most of the rest of the movie is about getting them back. But there's a slowly bubbling B-plot that eventually sends Team Newt careening into the movie's real Big Bad, a dark magical being known as an "Obscurus."
The movie is fun when it's about getting back the magical creatures and predictably dour when it's about dealing with the evil magical entity. Rowling fans will see the parallel with the Potter stories, which would swing from teen drama, Quidditch matches, and silliness into life-or-death magic fights, soul-sucking Dementors, and general gloom and doom. The mix works equally well for Fantastic Beasts, even as it sets up our new villain, or rather an old villain made new. Albus Dumbledore's friend-turned-nemesis Gellert Grindelwald is mentioned in hushed whispers and newspaper headlines before we even know who he is — much like a certain Dark Wizard we all came to know and hate in the Potter series. We're led to believe that Grindelwald will indeed be this series' Voldemort.
Obviously, Rowling is sticking to what she knows works, and so is Warner Bros., bringing in director David Yates, who handled that last four Potter movies. Rowling is obviously having fun expanding her universe while setting it up in such a way that it almost feels like she's refining and perfecting the storytelling tricks she learned the first time around. That means Fantastic Beasts feels polished, but Rowling was always polished. Fantastic Beasts has the sheen of a big budget studio film, but walks a special kind of line, feeling neither soulless nor like over-the-top nonsense.
It's interesting this time to watch Rowling's characters brought to life with adult actors who bring their own ideas to the table. In the Potter movies, the challenge was to find kids who met the profile of the characters, and the casting directors were enormously successful. But this time Redmayne is actively defining how we think of Newt Scamander, and he's not subtle. His shyness is paradoxically bold in its way and he plays up the awkwardness for laughs until he finds himself in his element and transforms into a dashing sort of rebel.
It turns out this new wizard hero, like the magical luggage he totes around, has a guise he shows to the outside world and an inner self capable of big surprises. The movie has a few big surprises itself, giving us reason to keep watching to see how it all plays out in the next few films.