As soon as the familiar twinkly score starts up and the eerie blue Warner Brothers logo appears on screen before “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” you’re transported back to that oh-so-familiar magical world spun by the keys of J.K. Rowling. It feels like plunging into a bath. But it’s definitely not all-too-familiar — there isn’t a butterbeer or an owl in sight. “Fantastic Beasts” is “Harry Potter” with adults, with the added pizzazz of all the salacious trappings of 1926 Jazz Age New York to spice up the style.
Our hero is a tousle-haired, stoop-shouldered ginger from the fair isle of Britain, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He arrives in New York City the way many of the immigrants who made this country great did: through Ellis Island. But the one shady thing he smuggles through customs is a battered suitcase that growls, hisses and rattles. Those would be the fantastic beasts with which the film is concerned — they’re outlawed in the U.S. magical world, which is strictly kept secret from the No-Majs (aka Muggles).
But Newt is a gentle soul, a caretaker and free thinker who believes in the power and good of all creatures treated with respect and love. He’s in New York only a few minutes before he happens upon an anti-witch doomsday cult preaching of a Second Salem and loses several of his beasts into the city. The roundup of the animals allows for Newt to convince skeptical Magical Congress auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) of the creatures’ usefulness just in time to battle a monstrous and deadly force wreaking havoc on the cobblestone streets, threatening the wizards’ cover.
“Potter” helmer David Yates once again takes the reins on “Beasts” and he spins darkly gorgeous, equally divine and grotesque images imbued with Prohibition Era old-fashioned flapper glamour. The film is a marvel to behold, even when it descends into the very 2016 trend of destroying a major city with an apocalyptic dust cloud (see: “Squad, Suicide”; “Apocalypse, X-Men”; et al.).
“Beasts” plunges us into this fresh magical world populated by actual grown-ups — gangsters, babes and bakers — and this extra edge of sexy urban grime proves to be an intoxicating addition to the Potterverse. You’ll immediately crave more, and the world Rowling creates is both richly rendered and just the tip of the iceberg.
Redmayne is bashfully charming as Newt, giving a typically excellent physical performance as a shy man more comfortable around creatures than humans. He’s balanced by Dan Fogler as Kowalski, his jovial local No-Maj pal, Waterston as the Hepburn-esque gal with moxie, and an ethereal Alison Sudol as Tina’s sensual sister Queenie. The rest of the cast features scene-stealers Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller as the most complicated creatures of all.
“Fantastic Beasts” is transporting, but its themes are far from escapist. It’s a film about immigrants who might seem foreign, with different values and ideas, but who just might save us from ourselves. It’s about the power of whispering rather than shouting; tenderness and love erasing violence and terror. It’s about embracing, not suppressing, one’s unique qualities — in order to hone them into talent and skill. Newt Scamander is indeed the hero who we need right now, and Rowling is the storyteller we need now more than ever.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton.
Director: David Yates
Running time: 2:13.
Rated: PG-13, for some fantasy action violence.