Where are the fantastic beasts in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Author J.K. Rowling has made it easy for you. She sprinkles them across 1926 Manhattan, where they scuttle about with furtive energy, as if they were tourists fumbling for their passports or immigrants worried about their visas.
The creatures here include the Niffler, which looks like a duck-billed platypus and has a predilection for shoplifting; the Bowtruckle, a spindly green plant that suggests a tiny version of those wind socks you see at car dealerships; and the rather alarming Erumpent, which resembles a rhino with a pool of lava glowing beneath its horn.
Everything, really, but the truly Big Apple monster Woody Allen once dreamed up — a beast with the body of a crab and the head of a social worker.
The movie itself is a bit of a push-me-pull-you — a properly magical experience (the production design, including the animals, is enchanting) tugged in other, darker directions by Rowling’s sometimes unwieldy screenplay.
Beasts, directed by David Yates (who brought a steady hand to the Harry Potter franchise), begins with the arrival on these shores of British “magizoologist” Newt Scamander. Played by Eddie Redmayne with an air of deferential leprechaun shyness that’s not always as beguiling as it’s meant to be, Newt successfully makes his way past security carrying a briefcase packed with shirts and, beneath them, his private menagerie.
Mary Poppins’ valise may have set the previous standard for commodious magic bags, but you couldn’t climb down into hers and wander around a space rangy enough to allow tentacle-lipped cattle to go a-roaming unfenced.
To a modern audience, at least, Newt’s briefcase has the potential to be the greatest piece of carry-on luggage ever designed.
But Newt’s timing is poor: He arrives in Manhattan just as the city’s wizards are concerned about — and squabbling over — a hard-to-control force of evil that’s been erupting around town and (so they fear) will force them into open conflict with human forces, referred to here not as “muggles” but as “No-Maj.” (Rowling’s ear for conversational American speech isn’t great.)
Out of this crisis grows the much stronger part of the story, which not coincidentally focuses on actors instead of CGI and brings Redmayne face to face with Colin Farrell, playing an untrustworthy wizard named Percival Graves. Percival, who looks like the Upper East Side’s most discreetly expensive funeral director, displays an unseemly interest in that unruly force, which runs deeper and darker than the subway.
Newt becomes allies with Katherine Waterston’s Prosperina Goldstein, a smart, skeptical and very watchful witch-investigator working for the American wizards: Waterston is unaffectedly believable (which counts for a lot in this kind of a fantasy) as a character who seems to have seeped in, like a mist, from old black-and-white movies about big-city newsrooms and downtown police precincts.
There’s also Samantha Morton as Mary Lou Barebone, an intolerant, magic-hating woman who isn’t too far removed from the cray-cray mamma in Carrie, and Ezra Miller as a troubled young man, pale and thin as a Puritan starving in midwinter, whom she routinely torments.
As the wizards bicker in their secret congressional hall and Mary Lou urges her No-Maj followers to amass against magic, you wouldn’t be wrong if you got the sense Rowling is trying to shape these struggles, which are political as well as magic, into a parable about fascism: She has said that’s one of the ideas behind the film. Her ability to dramatize the uses (and abuses) of enchantment remains formidable — the storm clouds rise and rumble over Manhattan — but you could argue that she’s off by a decade: For her models she ought to be looking to the America of the 1930s, when the likes of Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin and even Charles Lindbergh were all lightning rods in the anxious advance of World War II.
There doesn’t seem to be much reason, then, to have set the story in New York during the days of flappers, Prohibition and so on. The city is treated as a grand, rather grim metropolis that’s risen up so that it can be effectively demolished by the unleashed forces of the warlock class.
Imagine if Peter Jackson had done his King Kong reboot in Brussels.
But at least these characters are genuinely, excitingly beastly.
In theaters Friday, rated PG-13. Get tickets now.