‘Fantastic Beasts’ returns whimsy to magical realm of ‘Harry Potter’

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spin-o of the popular “Harry Potter” franchise, weaves a whimsical tale of wizards and magical beasts against the Art Deco backdrop of 1920s New York. (Illustration by Alexandra Ehrler)

If there is one complaint that could be made regarding the last few “Harry Potter” films, it is how unsettlingly dark they are. In its later years, the beloved franchise’s plot matured along with its audience, trading in lighthearted magical shenanigans for thrilling magical duels to the death.

However, the newest entry in the series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” oozes with a nostalgic, light-hearted charm that will most certainly appeal to all fans, new and old alike.

Five years after putting the seemingly-unstoppable beast that is the “Harry Potter” film franchise to bed, author/screenwriter J.K. Rowling and director David Yates have returned to introduce audiences to a softer sort of magical beast, that manages to improve on the original series in almost every way.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” follows British wizard-researcher Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) on his quest to find and document all of the world’s magical beasts. He arrives in 1920s New York, determined to ensure the safety of any magical beasts in America.

Before he can get to work, however, he becomes wrapped up in a series of wacky misunderstandings that results in him joining together with a defamed magical investigator, her ditzy sister and an awe-struck No-Maj (non-magic user) in order to save the city from destruction at the hands of an out-of-control beast.

“Fantastic Beast’s” main cast does a fantastic job of filling the gaps left by the stars of the original series. Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is an unlikely, yet lovable protagonist, timid and meek, his nuanced performance emphasizes the character’s inner-strength.

Unlike Harry Potter, Newt is not a chosen one, destined for greatness. He is an every-man, willing to do anything for the endangered beasts he is passionate about, making him much easier to identify with.

Opposite Redmayne is Katherine Waterston, an up-and-comer known for her recent roles in “Steve Jobs” and “Inherent Vice,” who plays Tina Goldstein, a former American magical investigator who teams up with Newt after attempting to arrest him for letting his beasts escape into the city. Waterston brings a seriousness to the otherwise light-hearted plot, as the film dips its toe into the murky waters of her troubled past.

An unrecognizable Ezra Miller (slated to play The Flash in DC’s upcoming big screen adaptation,) plays Credence, a young teenage boy whose adopted-mother makes him canvas city streets advocating the eradication of witches.

Credence, however, desires nothing more than to be a wizard. He turns to Tina and high wizard Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) for training and approval. Miller’s raw vulnerability is transfixing, making Credence’s story one of the most compelling of the film.

However, the true standouts here are newcomers Alison Sudol as Tina’s sister Queenie and Dan Fogler as Jacob Kawolski, the unsuspecting No-Maj that gets dragged into the chaos. Both Sudol and Fogler shine and transform what should be supporting comic-relief roles into one of the most magical facets of the film.

The new setting also gives the franchise an alluring polish and freshness to it. The set designers and visual effects crew clearly had fun bringing the wizarding world of 1920s New York to life, resulting in a magnificently enormous Art Deco design that makes the halls of Hogwarts feel look cramped and drab in comparison.

The visual effects also add a lot to the lm’s 1920s aesthetic. Whimsical scenes of clothes being magically levitated onto a clothesline are o set by majestic mythical beasts flying over a 1920s New York City skyline. The effect is entirely engrossing, immersing audiences completely into the magical world.

Yes, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has seemingly improved on every aspect of the original “Harry Potter” franchise.

The only critique I can give the film is that the deeper bits of plot become almost incoherently confusing near the end, especially if you have not read the source material. But the “Harry Potter” series has suffered from indulging a bit too deeply into its plot, and has certainly succeeded despite this.

Audiences of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find em” too will forgive the lm for its missteps as grown-up fans and children alike flock to theaters for a fresh new spin on the fantastic.