By Richard von Busack
J.K. Rowling’s ingenuity, now free of old Hogwarts, gets a real workout in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Credited as scriptwriter and co-producer, Rowling has a fresh backdrop, the New York of 1926. She and director David Yates, a longtime vet of the Harry Potter film series, charm us with the critters, but really hook us with the characters. This warmly cast comedy has a switched-suitcase plot, mixing a British amateur crypto-zoologist, a busted-down former police officer for the world of magic, the portly baker Kowalski (Dan Fogler, excellent in a dapper stout-man part, neither slobby nor mawkish), and a ravishing if ditzy mind-reader.
The battered leather suitcase belongs to Hogwarts dropout Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and is far bigger on the inside, which makes it ideal for stuffing full of mythological beasts. On a visit to the city, one of Newt’s menagerie escapes—an endearingly mischievous flying echidna that loves to stuff treasure into its pouch. When trying to retrieve the thieving monotreme from a bank’s vault, Newt’s case gets accidentally picked up by the baker Kowalski.
Aggravated mystical copper Porpentina Goldstein (the pretty, sad-faced Katherine Waterston) hauls Newt into custody, delaying the rescue. Even with the New York wizards trying their best to keep secrecy, some civilians suspect witchcraft. Samantha Morton is an Aimee Semple McPherson-type street preacher who carries a banner emblazoned with a pair of large hands snapping a magic wand. Enter Miss Goldstein’s glamorous telepathic sister Queenie (Alison “A Fine Frenzy” Sudol); she thinks Kowalski is on the cute side, even if his mind is going to need to be “obliviated” once their adventure is over.
You’ll want to see Philippe Rousselot’s photography on an IMAX screen if possible, to take in the terrifically detailed New York City landscapes, with their pomp and squalor. Colin Farrell is magically evil as a snappily dressed enforcer who is secretly preying on a poor half-wit (Ezra Miller); Ron Perlman is a speakeasy proprietor who looks like a demon version of H. L. Mencken. The effects are dazzling, but you may need an obliviation spell to forget having seen similar ones in Doctor Strange—the buildings that repair themselves, or the apple that eats itself while floating in the air.