By Greg Canzio (Fort Pierce, FL, US)
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The Harry Potter film series was magical. Sorry about the pun, but there is no other way to put it. From family friendly films to adult fantasy, the Potter franchise matured and grew with its viewers. As a result, no other film franchise has found the same success critically and financially. Now audiences are receiving the prequel treatment with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Has the Potter universe struck gold once again? Or has the charm worn off?

Set in 1926, Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) an English magizoologist (a wizard who studies magical creatures) whose beasts become loose during a trip to New York City. Scamander meets a muggle named Jacob (Dan Fogler), or “No-Maj” as us Yankees call him, a magic investigator named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). With the help of his new friends, Scamander must find his magical beast before it causes a greater divide between wizards and non-magical beings.

Fantastic Beasts is an exciting and emotional return to the wizarding world filled with great performances and stunning visuals. Eddie Redmayne portrays Scamander as charmingly awkward and kind. It will be exciting to see his growth as a character in future films. Waterson does a fantastic job playing Scamander’s determined and courageous female counterpart. But the standout is Fogler. Jacob, a struggling baker, is a walking, talking ball of sunshine who is mesmerized by the newly discovered wizarding world. Fogler is a delight to watch and shares crazy chemistry with Sudol. Their growing affection toward one another is heartwarming.

The CGI beasts are exactly what the title implies, fantastic. These dazzling creatures range from adorable to downright vicious. There is this warm and whimsical feeling when Scamander and Jacob are chasing the beasts around NYC. Potter fans have grown accustomed to the Hogwarts setting, but New York City gives audiences the chance to explore the cultural differences between the wizarding communities.

J.K. Rowling transitions smoothly from author to screenwriter. Rowling, a master storyteller, was able to derive a thrilling and timely story that echoes some of today’s world issues. There are essentially two films in one. A family friendly adventure where Scamander and friends go on a scavenger hunt for his creatures and a much darker toned tale about prejudices between non-magical beings and wizards and the fear in being yourself.

The darker elements in Fantastic Beasts come from a subplot surrounding an orphanage ran by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). Barebone is the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society an extremist group whose goal is to destroy all magical beings. This further develops into a story about Barebone’s adopted son Credence (a powerful performance by Ezra Miller) and his mysterious relationship with the Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Ferrell). While this can make the film overstuffed at times, audiences are asked to have faith in Rowling’s vision. Much like Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, Fantastic Beasts is setting up something much greater.

Director David Yates, who directed Potter films five through eight, certainly understands and loves this franchise. He is able to capture an enchanting fairytale while balancing the film’s darker elements. There is pressure adapting a beloved book series because you cannot fit everything into a film. Now Yates is able to direct a brand new story without the restrictions of a source material.

Fantastic Beasts is a welcomed installment of Rowling’s cinematic wizarding universe. With Rowling and Yates working together on all five films it can be assumed that the franchise is in the right hands. Fantastic Beasts is a reminder of what makes fantasy and the wizarding universe so special. Although it can be rather crowded and a bit slow-paced at times, there is so much magic to be found. This time pun intended.

Rating: 4/5

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