The success of this movie seems to have been predetermined by its pedigree (an original screenplay by J.K. Rowling—her first) and its promise of an elaborate new burst of imagination linked, however tangentially, to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. The most obvious difference is that it is set in New York City in the 1920s, a very real place and time.
Eddie Redmayne is charming as a shy Brit named Newt Scamander who arrives in Manhattan carrying a mysterious suitcase. The hyperactive creature inside turns out to be just one of many strange and fanciful beasts who are under his care and protection. Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, there is a war being waged between the secretive wizards and No-Majs (or Muggles) right under their noses. Newt has arrived at a crucial moment in that battle. His only ally is a woman (Katherine Waterston) who is friendly but somewhat cryptic; she lives with her effervescent sister, a bubbly showgirl (scene-stealing Alison Sudol).
A mixup of suitcases between Newt and a good-hearted civilian named Jacob Kowalski (appealingly played by Dan Fogler) sets the stage for a series of misadventures that send destructive creatures scrambling around the City. Meanwhile, a fanatical crusader (Samantha Morton) for whom the Salem Witch Trials are still relevant is harboring and manipulating a group of children as her emissaries, one of whom may possess a power far greater than any of Newt’s dangerous-looking creatures.
The storyline is not always clear, to put it mildly, but Rowling and director David Yates (a Potter veteran) have a supposed cure for that, which they call on repeatedly: introduce more creatures and cue a barrage of visual effects. This borders on overkill.
A subplot involving the son of a publishing magnate (Jon Voight) who is running for mayor seems completely extraneous, if not downright irrelevant. Voight looks lost, even confused, in the melee. And, as persuasive as the effects team has been in recreating Manhattan in the 1920s there is one trick they cannot pull off: making the extras and dozens of actors in small roles look or sound like New Yorkers.
Please understand, I enjoyed the Harry Potter movies but never became a devotee. Viewers in the know who have mourned that series’ demise will likely welcome a return to Rowling’s imaginings…even if this time they reflect the 21st century world more pointedly. In any case, there are four more Fantastic Beasts movies in the works. Perhaps they will lean more on elaborating story and character motivations than trying to knock us out with visual razzle-dazzle.