Likely to draw in just about everyone who followed the Harry Potter series and likely to please most of them, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” also has things to offer to fantasy-friendly moviegoers who only casually observed the Potter phenomenon. The latter group, however, may be less convinced that this spinoff demands the five feature-length installments Warner Bros. and series creator J. K. Rowling have planned.
Eddie Redmayne (“The Danish Girl”) makes an ideal Newt Scamander, who is endearingly sheepish around humans but gifted with the nifflers, bowtruckles, erumpents and so forth to whom the picture’s title refers. As he travels the globe collecting magical creatures, the wizard-scholar carries an enviable answer to Noah’s ark: A humble leather suitcase that, like the Tardis and Mary Poppins’ bag, is far larger on the inside than the outside. In fact, its vast, barnlike interior seems to contain its own time-space portals, allowing its inhabitants to enjoy whatever kind of habitat they desire. The only thing the suitcase doesn’t have is a reliable lid, and Newt has barely arrived in New York City before one of his more mischievous animals escapes, skittering around inside a bank and stealing shiny things. In the confusion, Newt’s case gets switched for Jacob’s (Dan Fogler), a portly, amiable baker who knows nothing about magic.
But by the time Newt realizes he has the wrong luggage, he’s in the custody of Tina (Katherine Waterston), a security officer with the Magical Congress of the United States of America, more commonly known as MACUSA. In the United States, “Muggles” are referred to as “no-majs,” which means “no magic” and is as unpleasing to the ear as it is on the page. Tina tries to get Newt in trouble for attracting attention in that bank, but when she ends up in a bit of hot water herself, she helps the out-of-towner hunt for his suitcase. That’s not terribly hard, as once Jacob opens the thing, the escaped beasts leave a trail of mayhem all over town. Tina brings the two men to her apartment for a pit stop, where they meet her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Jazz Age diva who can read minds, takes a shine to Jacob and makes the most of her too-few opportunities to charm the audience. As these four try to collect all the escapees from Newt’s menagerie without making all of Manhattan aware of the magic around them, a MACUSA operative by the name of Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) shadows them, pursuing some mysterious aims.
Invention and effects are the name of the game here, predictably, and this world invites us in as effectively as the best of the Potter episodes. Somewhat less effective is the film’s character-bonding agenda: breaks in the action for, say, backstory about Newt’s long-lost love sometimes feel like items on a checklist. On the other hand, a dinner scene at Tina and Queenie’s place charms, and the rapport Redmayne generates with the various beasts Newt cares for gives the picture a heart. Whether the ensemble chemistry ever clicks to the extent it did for Harry, Hermione and Ron is unclear, but Rowling clearly has an endless supply of lore left to share with those invested in her world.