No matter how much time goes by, no matter how many commercial grabs for my money (seriously, there are going to be five of these?), the sight of the WB logo floating through ominous clouds to the sound of that John Williams score always gives me goose bumps. There’s certainly a danger of diluting the magic by returning to the well, but J.K. Rowling’s first screenwriting effort, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” creates its own, more adult world with just enough winks of familiarity.
In 1926, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) ventures from England to America with a case full of magical creatures. He’s working on his book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” and wants to return one of the beasts to its rightful home in Arizona. He gets sidetracked in New York City, when Jacob (Dan Fogler), a no-maj (Muggle), accidentally picks up his case and lets a couple of creatures loose.
Newt and Jacob get picked up by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced Auror, and also meet her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). But something other than Newt’s beasts is terrorizing the city, and some are afraid it has to do with the rise of the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald.
Rowling skillfully weaves her various storylines, along with the old and the new. “Fantastic Beasts” is funnier and more mature than any of the previous eight “Potter” films, which makes sense considering she’s working with adult characters. She’s smart to include both a Brit (Newt) and a Muggle (Jacob) so that explaining things feels natural, and there’s still wonderment at displays of magic. Director David Yates hasn’t lost his immersive touch — when the crew steps into the American ministry, the thrill of magical discovery is still there. The four main characters are all perfectly cast, but Redmayne’s mix of sheepish and mischievous is a delight to watch.
It’s hard to follow up “Harry Potter,” which had a richer backstory and felt more personal than “Fantastic Beasts.” The spark isn’t quite as powerful as it once was. The film also suffers from pacing issues — there are a lot of shenanigans involving capturing the beasts, taking away from the much more interesting magical danger that’s unfolding. Finally, it’s odd to see a Rowling film succumb to the superhero movie cliché of a finale that involves the destruction of New York City.
It’s not Hogwarts, but Rowling still has some magic in her.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton.
Director: David Yates.
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 133 minutes. Fantasy action violence. Playing at: area theaters.