“Fantastic Beasts” an enchanting “Potter” prequel

Eric Anderson, A&E Editor

Mixing the charms of its characters, an engaging narrative and grandiose visuals to strong effect, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a prequel to the “Harry Potter” franchise, is an uncommonly affable and whimsical film that has much to offer audiences. It is noticeably superior to the most recent work to emerge from the Wizarding World, the July 2016 play “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Directed by David Yates (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) and written by “Potter” author, J. K. Rowling, the film stars Eddie Redmayne (“Les Miserables”) as Newt Scamander, a British wizard zoologist who travels to New York City in 1926 with a case containing numerous magical creatures he has collected. Unfortunately, due to a mix-up with the non-magical Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, “Europa Report”), a number of his creatures escape into the city and Scamander must team up with Kowalski, as well as American witch sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) before they expose the wizarding world to an already suspicious American public.

While the film is chock-full of references to the established “Potter” mythos–the film’s inspiration stems from Rowling’s fake textbook of the same name ostensibly written by Scamander–much of the film’s strength lies in its accessibility. The film has two audience surrogate characters; Kowalski stands in for newcomers to the wizarding world, while Scamander helps transition series veterans from the British wizarding community to its American counterpart. There’s plenty of exposition that needs delivering throughout the film, but it generally is quick and to the point. The film moves at a brisk enough pace that the occasional pauses are welcome.

The new characters are key to the film’s appeal. Newt Scamander brings out the best in actor Eddie Redmayne, a single-minded man on a mission who, at the same time, is a likable figure that is easy to get behind. Tina Goldstein is a similarly driven character whose impetuousness has gotten her into trouble before, but, at the same time, doesn’t act without reason. Her sister Queenie is bubbly and excitable, and Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves is a strong villain. The heart of the movie, however, is Kowalski, whose deadpan wonder at the new world around him gives him an irresistible affability that drives the film and adds a human element to the unfolding spectacle.

On a technical level, the film has much to boast of. Notably, composer James Newton Howard, a newcomer to the franchise, provides a rich and layered score that mixes ethereal melodies, suspenseful beats and 1920’s jazz stylings to achieve one of the year’s more memorable orchestral soundtracks. The editing is sharp and the film is a bit brighter in color and setting than previous “Potter” films. While the film’s realism could have benefited from using less CGI monsters and more practical effects, the creature designs themselves are imaginative and unique.

The film’s biggest weakness is its franchise ambitions. Distributor Warner Bros. has already announced a planned five-film franchise and the result is that there are a few too many plots competing for attention in “Fantastic Beasts.” While Scamander’s story takes center stage, it requires some time before smaller, separate plots detailing American magical politics, a radical anti-magical organization and the rise of a European wizarding menace merge into the main story. While the film is shorter than most prior “Potter” films, it can often feel overstuffed.

However, “Fantastic Beasts” is a marked improvement over the recent “Cursed Child” play. It is not bound to the original stories, takes proper time to introduce characters and, unlike “Cursed Child,” is not driven by poor character decisions or clumsily handled villains.

Overall, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a strong choice for holiday moviegoing, both for adult audiences and for family crowds. Both wizarding novices and “Potter” veterans will find much to enjoy about the adventures of Newt Scamander and his new friends.