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Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Over five years have passed since we bid farewell to the Harry Potter film series (and nearly a decade since the final book), but it’s not as if the young wizard has thrown on his invisibility cloak for good.

This past summer, Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling released the stage script “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”, she wrote with playwright Jack Thorne. The play continues the famed wizard’s story and explores his adult life while introducing his children more in depth.  (And, unsurprisingly, the script became the most preordered book of 2016.)

Now, Rowling has penned the screenplay for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” a new feature film set in Potter’s Wizarding World. “Beasts” is a welcome entry in the mythos she created, expanding the boundaries of the universe she established with her first seven Potter novels. The movie might not have the same initial awe factor that the Potter series provided, but it’s still brimming with charm and, of course, magic.

Our wizard hero this time around is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a mild-mannered Brit who finds his way to New York City in 1926. With him, he brings a suitcase filled with magical creatures which gets accidentally switched with that of non-magical New Yorker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who unintentionally releases the creatures into the city. When the Magical Congress of the United States catches wind of Scamander’s loose creatures, they pursue him across New York, in an effort to keep the Wizarding World under wraps.

One might think that the film’s namesake “Beasts” would be its most interesting aspect. But that honor belongs to the bustling ‘20s America cityscape that Rowling conjures. Detailed touches like American witches in flapper hats and dresses and early art deco designs add to the world Rowling already established with her books. When Scamander and co. seek refuge in a magical speakeasy populated by bar trolls and elves, it’s a seamless blending of this magical world with American history. Rowling makes it clear that the Potterverse stretches far behind the confines of Hogwarts School.

And the film’s creatures are by no means disappointing. Scamander’s gold-loving, mischievous Niffler (think of a hybrid platypus-hedgehog) brings humor in all of his scenes along with the Erumpent (essentially a roided-out rhino) who tries to mate with the bumbling Kowalski in the Central Park Zoo.  Other visually impressive beasts include the Occamy, a Technicolor serpent, and the griffin-like Thunderbird which are both gorgeous and fascinating to watch interact with Redmayne.

If there are any drawbacks to Rowling’s first foray as a screenwriter, it’s her lack to include a memorable antagonist. Voldemort, Harry Potter’s nemesis, is one of the most notorious villains in recent memory and the confusing baddie here leaves nowhere near an impression. “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” is a tough act to follow.

Bearing the Harry Potter franchise name, it’s no shocker that “Fantastic Beasts” is the first in a planned trilogy of its own (with perhaps even more movies in the pipeline). Watching Rowling widen the borders of her beloved Wizarding World is entrancing and we get the sense there’s far more to be explored, with or without Potter as the protagonist. “Beasts” isn’t flawless, but it’s easy to fall under its spell all the same.