With the richest fictional world this side of “Star Wars,” the “Harry Potter” universe is one the great achievements in modern popular culture. And now, J.K. Rowling’s prequel, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” shows that her universe expands handily. Taking a step back from the pressure to continue the existing storyline, she dips into its past for a smart, engaging prequel that deepens the “Potter” saga while pushing it in a fresh direction.
A gothic “Men in Black” set in 1920s-era New York, “Fantastic Beasts” scales back the dense set of events that defined “Harry Potter” movies and focuses on a narrower strata of magical circumstances in the middle of a human society. “Potter” stalwart David Yates conjures a visually sumptuous environment, and Rowling introduces a terrific central character in Newt Scamander (Eddie Redymayne, ideal for the geeky part), an animal conservationist who protects magical beings that he collects in his expansive suitcase.
The plucky British explorer passes through New York in his globe-spanning quest to find endangered creatures when he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a klutzy baker who inadvertently switches briefcases with Newt on the street. Once Kowalski inadvertently lets loose some of the colorful animals, they wreak havoc on the city.
Such is the light-hearted premise at the center of this spry mood piece, as Jacob joins forces with Newt, struggling investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) to contain the problem before the public finds out. In the process, they must also avoid detection by MACUSA, the governing body of the American wizarding world that threatens serious punishment to anyone who reveals its existence.
At times, the blithe adventure is interrupted by darkness as when hotshot wizard Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, looking stern and a touch bored) takes ostracized young wizarding pupil Credence (Ezra Miller) under his wing. Credence suggests the early stirrings of an antagonistic threat, but the full nature of their relationship only comes together in the cacophonous finale. These murky events, as well as the fate of elusive evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), provide constant reminders of a movie that’s obliged to set the table for future installments. They’re also the weakest scenes in a movie that works best without its busy subplots.
“Fantastic Beasts” already has a sequel on the way, but it operates well as a standalone that fleshes out the “Potter” timeline and complicates its politics. Newt arrives in 1926 America, a tumultuous moment in its history and not just because the stock market crash is right around the corner. A mania for witch hunting plagues the city, while MACUSA itself (under the tutelage of Carmen Ejogo as its stern president) maintains tight restrictions on its magical community. Both skeptical and derogatory toward normal people (whom they call “No-Majs,” the American “Muggles”) but constantly at odds about their own rules, these wizarding authorities strike a notable contrast to the more carefully regulated European government in the “Potter” films. Rowling keenly asserts the perils of fear-mongering without burying the movie’s thrilling qualities in polemics.
Newt strikes a charming contrast to these fraught surroundings, pulling Jacob into the world of his briefcase to show off an extraordinary menagerie brought to life with vivid CGI. Announcing that he protects these critters from “the most vicious creatures on the planet, humans,” Newt takes a backseat to the range of imaginative beings on display. These creations come equipped with Rowling’s usual inventive language, from the Nundu (a reptilian lion) to the hulking, rhino-like Erumpent and the majestic avian Thunderbird. But no beast steals the show more than Niffler, a platypus-like troublemaker with a penchant for stealing shiny things. Stealing the spotlight more than once, Niffler takes the mantle from Slimer in the pantheon of memorable supernatural nuisances.
Rowling’s screenplay manages to juggle absurdities with serious “Potter” lore, and throwaway lines provide reminders of a historical backdrop. (As Newt and his new human pal trade small talk, they bond over their experiences in World War I, with Newt saying he fought alongside dragons on the Eastern Front.) As with the “Potter” films, Rowling also keeps tabs on the human dimension, squeezing in a gentle romance between Jacob and Queenie, and setting the stage for a tragic conflict of values when it becomes clear that relationships between humans and magical beings are strictly prohibited.
Redmayne does penance for his last outing in an effects-heavy blockbuster (the Wachowskis’ campy “Jupiter Ascending”), providing the drama with its good-natured center. As the intense, process-driven Tina, Waterston show she’s worthy of carrying her own film, while Sobol suits the Roaring Twenties vibe as grinning Queenie, a kind of telepathic Betty Boop. Fogler, meanwhile, finally can move beyond disposable comedies, playing the klutzy Jacob as a bumbler whose eyes bulge whenever he encounters more magical circumstances.
But the real star of “Fantastic Beasts” is its heavily stylized, period-specific setting. From a seedy jazz club filled with outrageous beings to an explosive showdown in Manhattan’s old City Hall subway station, the movie captures a New York that’s at once nostalgic and otherworldly. Cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot — a world away from the neon-drenched scenery he captured in “The Nice Guys” earlier this year — constructs a grayish palette bordering on sepia that imbues each shot with nostalgic elegance, while legendary costume designer Colleen Atwood nails the formal attire of the era.
“Fantastic Beasts” delivers the most satisfying period fantasy since Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” but its layers of sophistication are what yield one of the best Hollywood blockbusters of the year. (“Doctor Strange” reaches greater heights in terms of its effects, but falls short on story.) Coming after a jarringly weak season of summer movies, it’s an especially welcome year-end treat.
While tender, artfully understated studio efforts such as David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” suggest an alternate route to overpriced spectacles, “Fantastic Beasts” proves that scale is less of an issue than the level of care that goes into its creation. The “Potter” movies were so well conceived that they contain endless possibilities for more entries, and “Fantastic Beasts” takes the bait right on cue, not repeating a formula so much as enriching it with a spellbinding polish.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens nationwide on November 18.