'Fantastic Beasts' is a rip-roaring 'Harry Potter' prequel that sets the stage for a whole new franchise

Fantastic beasts eddie redmayne as newt scamanderWarner Bros.Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander in ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.’

The INSIDER Summary:

• “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a prequel to the “Harry Potter” series, set in New York.
• You don’t need to know too much about “Harry Potter” to enjoy it.

• It’s a lot of fun.

At long last! “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” spin-off prequel series is finally coming to theatres.

The film is the first of what Rowling plans to be a five-movie series. If you’re worried about whether it ruins the “Harry Potter” series, don’t be.

It’s really, really fun.

Set in 1926 and in New York, “Fantastic Beasts” focuses on Newt Scamander, a magizoologist who comes to New York. We know from Rowling’s other writings that he was expelled from Hogwarts and that Albus Dumbledore, then a transfiguration professor, argued in his defence. He also eventually wrote “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a guidebook to magical creatures that Potter bought for his first year at Hogwarts. (Rowling, who wrote the screenplay for this movie, turned the work into an actual book back in 2001).

In 1926, Scamander is still working on his corpus. Played by Eddie Redmayne, he’s in his late-20s and arrives in New York knowing more about its magical creatures than its magical human community. A small, adorable creature called a niffler escapes from his magically-expanded briefcase. It sets in motion a chain of events brings him into the company of Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj (a non-magical person) and in the custody of Porpentina Goldstein of MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America.

Fantastic beasts newt scamander crowdWarner Bros.Newt Scamander didn’t plan to stay in New York for long.
Fantastic Beasts nifflerWarner Bros.But Newt’s suitcase full of magical creatures has other ideas.

From there, the movie’s off. It’s a chase to contain the magical creatures that escape from Scamander’s briefcase and keep them secret from the unsuspecting New Yorkers.

As Scamander and company scamper around New York City, Rowling and director Steve Kloves (who also directed the final four “Harry Potter” films) introduces us to a flurry of other characters, and expands the plot. For such a complicated plot, it all unfolds cleanly and comes together at the end in a large, satisfying narrative.

Bowtruckle newt fantastic beastsCourtesy Warner Bros. PicturesNewt and his no-maj companion Jacob with some bowtruckle.

There’s Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), an unforgiving head auror who’s hiding something. The Second Salemers are a collection of muggles who believe witches and wizards exist and want to root them out. They’re dismissed as cranks, and are run out of a creepy orphanage in Lower Manhattan.

Colin farrell graves fantastic beastsWarner Bros.Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, the head auror at MACUSA.
Credence family fantastic beastsJaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.Credence, his young sister Modesty, and their caretaker make up some of the Second Salemers.

And the movie’s opening shows us reams of newspaper clippings warning viewers about the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, a mysterious dark wizard who wants magicians to come out of hiding and oppress muggles. He overshadows the whole affair.

Rowling understands that a screenplay is different from a novel, and requires its own type of storytelling. Each book in the “Harry Potter” series takes place over the course of one school year. It was a perfect structure for the books. Each year, Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to fight evil and restore balance to the wizarding world, but they also struggled with their classes and blundered with their relationships. We got to watch them grow up.

“Fantastic Beasts,” however, takes place over the course of 48 hours. It’s a different format, but the right one for this type of story. The “Harry Potter” movies always struggled to fill all of the details of an entire year in a two-and-a-half hour film. The structure always left some holes in the plot. Viewers had to rely on their knowledge of the books to totally grasp what was going on.

“Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t have that problem. It’s a quick-paced swashbuckler through the streets of New York City, carrying us from City Hall downtown to Central Park Zoo. While knowing all the nitty gritty details of the “Harry Potter” series adds layers of complexity to the story, and attaches it to Rowling’s larger universe, they aren’t necessary to know. It is rewarding, though: finally, my knowledge of Murtlap arcana is useful.

Eddie Redmayne as Newt scamander with a thunderbird in fantastic beastsWarner Bros.Scamander and Fred the Thunderbird, who also figures into the story somehow.

And for 48 hours, Rowling does a lot of world-building. She packs in small, subtle details that collectively go a long way to placing us in New York. A goblin who works the elevator in MACUSA, for example, has a thick Brooklyn accent. The Second Salemers are a reference to the Salem witch trials, as told in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” The auror uniform is a long brown leather cloak, probably with a flask of whiskey hidden away somewhere, and a fedora. And of course, there are a lot of fantastic beasts — everything from ape-like Demiguises, capable of turning invisible, and powerful Thunderbirds.

The quick pace also means that there’s less room for character development. Some of the relationships fall into place in the final 20 minutes, but that’s really it. Because we don’t get to know Newt Scamander, or the rest of the American magicians, too intimately, the stakes feel lower than in the Harry Potter movies. Harry is an orphan who wants to be murdered by the most powerful dark wizard in modern history. Scamander, by contrast, is too mysterious. It also doesn’t help that we know Voldemort was an ultimately more evil and powerful wizard than Grindelwald ever was, so the villain isn’t, right now, as scary. Still, the plot is in motion and the stage is set for four more movies, and I can’t wait to watch them.

“Fantastic Beasts” is in theatres November 18 with early showings Thursday evening.

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