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MOVIES: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - Review

Five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Warner Bros. is spiriting audiences back to the wizarding world for a brand new tale from series architect J.K. Rowling. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces the American side of the magic community, and explores the fundamental differences between the way magic is approached and governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and its more familiar UK counterpart, the Ministry of Magic.

The year is 1926, and despite a nationwide ban on magical creatures, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just arrived in New York City with a suitcase full of them. A chance encounter with a "No-Maj" (that's American for "muggle") named Jacob (Dan Fogler) results in several of the enchanted critters escaping, and with reports of mysterious occurrences and widespread destruction all over the city, Newt finds himself and his pets in the crosshairs of the MACUSA's more fearsome agent, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). In order to prevent the magical community from being exposed to the public, Newt teams up with disgraced auror Porpentina Goldtein (Katherine Waterston) and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) to recapture the beasts before it's too late.

With a screenplay from J.K. Rowling herself, fans will be delighted at the numerous references and inside jokes that litter the film. But audiences expecting a whimsical, family-friendly adventure may be surprised at the darkness lurking just below the surface, as our characters must also contend with New Salem, a group of anti-magic fanatics led by an abusive matriarch (Samantha Morton) and her timid, secretive son Credence (Ezra Miller), and the rise of a powerful wizard whose very name inspires terror across the globe, and whose connection to a beloved character from the original films will no doubt be explored in future installments.

The Harry Potter series boasted a number of strong casting choices throughout its lifespan, and Fantastic Beasts continues that tradition, with Redmayne, Waterston and Fogler all operating at the top of their game. The film's two key relationships - the budding romance between Newt and Porpentina, and the Jacob/Newt bromance - are wonderfully realized, and I'm hoping we'll get to spend more time with each of these characters in the future. Farrell and Miller are also solid, but could have benefited from a bit more screentime devoted to exploring their characters in more detail.

After helming the final four installments of the Harry Potter franchise, the return of director David Yates ensures that even though Fantastic Beasts takes place in new environments previously unexplored by the film series, the overall aesthetic still feels like part of the same world. Yates has also become quite adept at conjuring (no pun intended) exciting action sequences augmented by the abilities of our characters, and the film has more than its fair share of "wow" moments, as well as countless smaller, more subtle effects that add to the overall sense of wonder.

Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is often hampered by the titular creatures themselves, many of whom are rendered in shockingly sub-par CG that gives them a glossy, unnatural appearance. The vibrant colors and outlandish biological choices frequently comes across as cartoonish, making it nearly impossible to suspend our disbelief and accept that these beasts actually exist, and this shortcoming is all the more frustrating when compared to the rest of the film, whose intricately detailed sets and costumes offer some of the best production design of the year.

Overall, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a welcome return to the universe created by J.K. Rowling, and serves as a competent introduction to a new collection of delightful characters that we can look forward to spending more time with over the next few years. The underlying darkness of the film may not resonate with everyone, and the inconsistent visual effects may be distracting at times, but the strong performances combined with the feeling of revisiting a place we love is more than enough to balance the scales.

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