Nothing and nobody really dies in fantasy cinema. That rule has seen the regeneration of seemingly long-dead franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars and the upcoming Blade Runner prequel. It was only a matter of time before JK Rowling threw her wand into the pile and revisited the evergreen story of “The Boy Who Lived”.
Taking place decades before scarred teenagers and their friends fought dark lords in the Harry Potter books and the film adaptations, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the story of Newt Scamander, a bumbling genius wizard (Eddie Redmayne). Scamander lands up in New York City of the Roaring Twenties, which is more a version of Batman’s Gotham than of rich spectacle of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Scamander is a “magizoologist”, who travels the far reaches of the Earth capturing beasts that resemble animals from the non-magical world such as rhinos, snakes, eagles but with slightly surreal peculiarities.
A few of the creatures from his magical briefcase escape into the streets of pre-Depression New York City and Scamander sets out to get them back. Along the way, he encounters Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a “no-mag” (muggle in American) and war veteran-turned-factory-worker who wants to be a baker and Tina Goldstein (Katherina Waterston), a disgraced Auror relegated to the wand permit department but desperate to get back in the good books of Madame President (Carmen Ejogo).
Meanwhile, mysterious occurrences take place throughout New York City that threaten to reveal the secrets of the magical world to the no-mag. Initial blame is directed towards Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the Dark Lord that a certain Albus Dumbledore defeated to put himself on the map. Chief Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) investigates, aided by creepy-demon child Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) both of whom are leading a crusade called Second Salemers against witches and wizards.
There are passing mentions to the eight Harry Potter films that came before; strains of the familiar Potter theme occasionally echo in the background; Albus Dumbledore is teaching at Hogwarts (or Hogwash as one of the American characters not fond of wizarding world across the pond calls it). There is just the right amount of Potter references for Fantastic Beasts to feel familiar and still not become a retread like JJ Abrams’ Star Wars reboot.
Rowling’s 2001 novel, which was written under the pseudonym Newt Scamander and which provided a basis for her screenplay, doesn’t have much of a plot and is more of a glossary of magical creatures. A movie spun out from a textbook mentioned only in passing in the books and movies could have gone drastically wrong. But aided by director David Yates (into his fifth film in the Potter franchise) and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, Rowling creates an incredibly immersive world that unfolds at a leisurely pace but is never boring because it does not get bogged down by the weight of audience expectations created by adaptations of the Potter books.
Creating good fantasy requires metaphors from the real world, and Fantastic Beasts does have many. The no-mag versus the magical world storyline not only harks back to the mutant versus humans theme from the original X-Men trilogy, but also has parallels with the fear, paranoia and persecution of minorities in our fraught present. There is enough escapist entertainment, from well-staged battle sequences and signature British wit to explorations of Scamander’s never-ending suitcase (occasionally hampered by stodgy CGI), to make the film perfectly primed for the dreary times in which humanity finds itself.