PLOT A wizard and his magical creatures must save New York City from an evil entity.
CAST Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell
RATED PG-13 (gruesome images, some scary deaths)
BOTTOM LINE J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” spinoff is sheer magic, a grand fantasy-adventure that already feels like an old family favorite. (Opens Friday, with some theaters offering Thursday-night screenings.)
Great movies have a way of making the familiar feel fresh. They take stories we already know, characters we’ve already seen, and somehow transform them into something new and dazzling. Whatever that magic formula is, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has it.
Certainly it helps that the movie takes place in the well-established world of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” novels and their eight film adaptations. Named after a classic Hogwarts textbook written by Newt Scamander, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” comes directly from Rowling herself — it’s her screenwriting debut — and is directed by David Yates, who shepherded the last four “Potter” films onto the screen.
From the moment Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) shuffles through a New York City customs line — the time is 1926 — this period-piece fantasy-adventure has us hooked. Redmayne’s Scamander, boyish and bookish, with a slightly goofy overbite, is instantly endearing. Granted, he breaks several laws by importing a briefcase full of magical wildlife, then carelessly swapping it for one belonging to a good-natured fella named Kowalski (an excellent Dan Fogler). Still, even the tightly wound witch-cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who immediately arrests Scamander, can’t stay mad at him for long.
“Fantastic Beasts” packs in almost as much as Scamander’s briefcase. It includes Ezra Miller as Credence, a morose young witch-hunter; Colin Farrell as the power-hungry wizard Percival Graves; and many references to an inevitable sequel. We don’t spend quite enough time with such creatures as the duck-billed Niffler or the rhino-esque Erumpet. Still, Yates directs with terrific speed and confidence, whisking us through scenes of whimsy (a magical Jazz Age speak-easy), moments of terror (two fairly intense deaths) and a heart-tugging romance between the genial Kowalski and the bubbly witch Queenie (a winning Alison Sudol). There’s also a wondrous world within this world: Scamander’s briefcase, whose interior is bigger than the American Museum of Natural History, and much more hands-on.
“Fantastic Beasts” is one of those movies that feels instantly real, as if its people and places already existed, not just once we took our seats. It’s a rare kind of magic that’s a pleasure to watch.