Five years have passed since the last of the Harry Potter movies, "Deathly Hallows: Part 2," wrapped up J.K. Rowling's staggeringly popular film franchise, the natural extension of the greatest publishing phenomenon in the history of wands.
But endings often leave a door open, and a map to somewhere new. In handsome, generally diverting fashion "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," directed by Potter alum David Yates and adapted by Rowling from her 2001 book, takes us not to Hogwarts but to 1920s America, visited at a crucial moment in its secret wizarding history by a Hogwarts alum bearing a very full suitcase. Potter fans will likely enjoy this first of a planned quintet of "Fantastic Beasts" outings; newcomers open to a certain, dutiful amount of expository world-building and narrative throat-clearing should get their money's worth, too.
We're in the realm of varyingly grown-up adults, rather than in the primary company of students navigating a scary adult world. Eddie Redmayne, costumed like the winner of a Jazz Age "Doctor Who" contest, plays shy, sweet Newt Scamander, a "magizoologist" by training and a glance-averting, Hogwarts-bred wizard who devotes his life (and his magic portal of a suitcase) to the collection, care and feeding of a wide variety of beasties, from Bowtruckle to Hippogriff.
Rowling's book ran a mere 128 pages, one-sixth the length of the longest Potter novel. This explains the movie's stretch marks. In "Fantastic Beasts" there's a simple storyline, and a complicated one. The simple one details how Scamander, newly arrived in 1926 New York City, loses track of his latest acquisitions and finds them all again. He has help in that regard. His cohorts are the wizard-world characters Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an investigator with the Magical Congress, U.S. division, and Tina's flapper-styled sister, mind reader Queenie (Alison Sudol). Dan Fogler takes the role of the fourth musketeer, a would-be baker introduced by Scamander to the wizard world.
Here's the more complex business. In this alternate-universe edition of Prohibition-era New York, the wizard underground is threatened by dark doings in Europe by Gellert Grindelwald, whom we met as an older man in the Potter series. It's no secret: Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), and his eventual showdown with Dumbledore, will take up much of the acreage of future "Fantastic Beasts" films. Rowling's fascination with fascism, its roots in childhood trauma and complacent democracies rotting from the inside, here find their emblems in characters played by Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton. Ezra Miller plays the bullied and abused Credence Barebone, whose rage takes the rather routine visual form of a destructive digital cyclone.
The storytelling rhythm gets a bit pokey for the amount of story being told. There are scenes, typically the most destructive ones, that could be plopped into any old "X-Men" movie. But director Yates knows his way around this stuff. The visual evocation of '20s Manhattan with a twist offers considerable satisfaction, as does Redmayne's embodiment of a boy-man more comfortable in the company of animals than with humans.
The ringer here is Fogler's Jacob, the wide-eyed, slack-jawed conduit for the muggle, or "no-maj" (i.e., unmagical) global audience. After watching him overact in one too many slob comedies over the past decade, it's a relief and a treat to see Fogler get ahold of a nice, big, funny, warm part, in a nice, big pre-sold franchise.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some fantasy action violence).
Running time: 2:13