FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM | ★★★½

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM | ★★★½

When the “Harry Potter” film series came to its staggering conclusion, an era had ended for an entire generation. J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World was gone, but certainly not forgotten, or so we thought. As is with the greatest imaginations, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Rowling would have more stories to tell. Ironically enough, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” apparates into theaters just weeks after “Doctor Strange” cast its own spell on audiences. Magic appears to be making a comeback in Hollywood, and not a moment too soon, especially for millennial viewers. Rowling’s latest adventure probably won’t attract new fans the way her initial series did 15 long years ago, but its arrival is most opportune for those who had the distinct pleasure to grow up with The Boy Who Lived.

In 1926, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City, carrying a mystical suitcase that houses several magical creatures. Not long after making his way through the busy streets of Manhattan, he bumps into the bumbling Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a lonely No-Maj (America’s term for Muggle) who immediately causes Newt some inconvenience by accidentally opening his suitcase, setting a number of Newt’s animals loose in the city. Joined by demoted auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her flirty sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt and Jacob search for the missing creatures, while Magical Security director Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) fiendishly tracks their movements.

Though it is certainly more spin-off than prequel, “Fantastic Beasts” is to “Harry Potter” what “Prometheus” is to “Alien.” It has its own unique lifeblood, but there is also that ever-so-subtle sameness that comes with every franchise flick. However, you’ve got to hand it to Rowling and David Yates (helmer of the last four Potters) for not dipping into too much into familiar territory the way that most brand-name sagas tend to nowadays. With the 1920s New York setting, Rowling and Yates find a plethora of opportunities to expand this whimsical world. A jazz-infused score by James Newton Howard helps edge the film away from its British roots. New doors are opened by Newt and company at nearly every turn, bringing forth both delight and darkness in equal measure. Rowling also retains her knack for conjuring an air of mystery among the proceedings, prompting her fresh-faced protagonists to engage in a little more action beyond collecting Newt’s scattered creatures.

As the first in a five-chapter series, “Fantastic Beasts” bares the burden of laying the groundwork for its sequels. With this in mind, it’s almost impossible to miss how the film delicately paves the way for future conflicts, particularly one that relates to a prominent figure in the “Harry Potter” mythos. However, the film surprisingly performs well enough on its own, telling a contained story that leaves just enough loose ends to keep fans in suspense for what will come next. This is expert world-building on the part of Rowling and Yates, but I quickly got the sense that the characters’ surroundings were labored over more than the characters themselves. I know we’re only one film in, but I know for a fact that Harry, Ron and Hermione were far more compelling during their first adventure. Nevertheless, the cast is sublime. Redmayne is charming as Newt, though his mannered mumbling often makes it difficult for us to understand him, especially when describing the names and natures of his dear creatures to Jacob. Fogler is just fine playing the audience surrogate, but he smartly suppresses the urge to crack jokes whenever strange things befall him and his new friends, making Jacob a refreshing detour from the witty sidekicks you might find in a Marvel movie. Waterston and Sudol are near perfect in their roles, bringing flamboyant and fierce femininity to the effort.

If you are hoping for that same sense of wonderment that made the “Harry Potter” films so thrilling, you won’t find it, but that’s because Rowling is acutely aware that we have all grown up. She creates a new kind of magic this time, albeit a kind that probably won’t endure as long as its predecessor has. Even so, “Fantastic Beasts" manages to be the perfect distraction for millennials who were raised on the series. How fitting that Rowling should introduce a generation now done with or just finishing school and moving into the real world to a character fresh out of Hogwarts. This impeccable timing becomes even more appropriate when you compare it to the timing of the first “Harry Potter” film, which captivated America when it was in dire need of a break from reality after the horror of 9/11. Today, Rowling offers America an escape once again after the divisive reactions to the 2016 Election, a reminder that there will always be a place in her world for us to visit whenever times get rough. So as pure escapism, “Fantasic Beasts and Where to Find Them” fits the bill, but as a franchise successor, it is adequate at best, although I will say to this new series, “I think it is clear that we can expect great things from you."

(7/10)