Prequels almost always set audiences up for disappointment. The Star Wars prequels make up one of the most reviled film trilogies of all time. The Hobbit trilogy was passable, but unnecessarily drawn-out. Then you have prequels that serve no purpose whatsoever, such as Dumb and Dumberer and The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. Every once and a while, though, a prequel like X-Men: First Class or Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully brings something unique to the table. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place several decades before the Harry Potter saga, is fortunately in the latter camp.
Is Fantastic Beasts as magical as Harry Potter? Not quite. It doesn’t have the same emotional impact or sense of mystery. However, it does expand upon the wizarding world with fresh ideas, characters, and locations. Plus, the beasts themselves are truly fantastic. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you definitely won’t regret buying a ticket.
The film is just as much a spinoff as it is a prequel, following an adorkable wizard named Newt Scamander (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne). This magizoologist will go on to write Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one of the most significant textbooks at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Before that, though, Newt travels from the UK to New York City with a briefcase full of peculiar creatures. Upon arriving, Newt crosses paths with a No-Maj – the American term for Muggle – named Jacob (Dan Fogler). When several beasts break loose, it’s up to Newt and Jacob to track them down. Along the way, they team up with a former Auror named Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her mindreading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Fantastic Beasts notably marks the screenwriting debut of J. K. Rowling, who of course created this franchise. This could have been a misfire, as not every author can see the difference between a novel and a script. Fortunately, Rowling turns in a flowing narrative with charming characters. She doesn’t pack the screenplay with too much exposition either. Rowling understands that film is a visual medium, often showing rather than telling.
On a technical level, Fantastic Beasts is one of the most stunning outings ever from director David Yates. There’s a particularly astounding sequence when Newt takes Jacob inside his magical suitcase, which is like a zoo full of Pokémon. Among the various magical species in Newt’s inventory, the standouts are platypus-like creatures called Nifflers and Groot-like seedlings called Bowtruckles. Almost every shot of the film has something visually interesting to offer, making it a wonder to observe.
While the beasts steal the show, our human protagonists still offer some strong character dynamics. It’s especially fun seeing a person with no magical powers discover this underground society. Newt and Jacob have a delightful chemistry, forming a friendship that earns comparison to Harry and Ron’s. There’s also a romance between Jacob and Queenie, which admittedly feels tacked on. Then again, what did Hermione ever see in Ron anyway?
It’s additionally intriguing to see how the United States differs from the Untied Kingdom in terms of magic. Instead of the British Ministry of Magic, we get the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Colin Farrell stars as Percival Graves, a the Director of Magical Security who is clearly up to something shady with a boy named Credence (Ezra Miller). The film also touches base on prejudice against wizardkind, introducing an extremist group know as the Second-Salemers. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t delve too deeply into these organizations, however. The film establishes a lot of new concepts, but leaves you wanting more. Luckily, this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Newt Scamander.
Several more sequels have already been announced, which you could argue is jumping the gun. Walking out the theater, though, Fantastic Beasts will have you excited for the possibilities that lie ahead. For now, this is a promising launching point for another chapter in the Harry Potter legacy. The film isn’t exactly grand or epic, but that’s probably not what Rowling and Yates were aiming for. They’ve delivered an enjoyable little adventure that’s more about atmosphere and environment. After watching Harry save the world from Voldemort, it’s actually refreshing to see a film that’s smaller and simpler, but enchanting nonetheless.