‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’
Director:
David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Here’s a theory we’re not even sure is correct: As the “Harry Potter” films began their descent, the screenwriters quit trying to cram in everything from the books. They figured, if this is even the case, that they were too complicated to get all in there. They could cut corners and the legion of people who actually read the books would mentally fill in any gaps left on the page. That wasn’t so hot for those who never picked up those doorstops yet plowed through the movies anyway. With the exception of the beautifully downer that was the first in the “Deathly Hallows” diptych, the world’s real muggles were lost, cast adrift, flailing about as they tried to divine what a “horcrux” was, why our young heroes were pursuing them and what they had to do with stopping a bad guy who had no nose.

In short, the films became a convoluted drag. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a prequel of sorts set in 1920s New York, isn’t always a smooth ride. Penned by J.K. Rowling herself, who historically turned that task over to acclaimed scribes like “The Fabulous Baker Boys”’ Steve Kloves, it can be narratively clumsy, stumbling over itself to start what, at heart, is a relatively simple tale. But it’s generally an opportunity to clear the throat and start anew with a new bevy of characters and, best of all, an unending stream of strange and delightful creatures. Strained and overly complex as Rowling’s stories can get, she’s created an enchanting world that bears revisiting and expanding a la the “Star Wars”-verse. And so she has.

Blissfully short on nudgy callbacks to the “Harry Potter” movies (but then, we didn’t read the books, so who knows?), “Fantastic Beasts” somewhat awkwardly introduces us to a long ago before-time mostly only suggested in the original books. We meet, for one, the famous Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a powerfully dorky, borderline-Aspergers wizard who doubles as a taxidermist and protector of the world’s crazy and sometimes cuddly creatures. He’s arrived in Prohibition-era Manhattan for some thin and half-understandable mission. Instead he accidentally unleashes a handful of monsters from his bottomless, “Mary Poppins”-style suitcase, risking the livelihood of the city’s underground of secret sorcerers, who have done a bang-up job of keeping their powers a secret from the muggle world, like a more together band of X-Men.

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This more whimsical plot, featuring untold critter cuties (one with a duckbill and a kangaroo pouch) and a scene where Redmayne does a mating dance with a rhino, is paired with a more ominous B story: There’s a mega-powerful, mega-evil wizard on the loose, and he or she likes to create the kind of havoc you tend to see in the city-destroying climaxes of Marvel movies. There’s also whispers of some super-villain who apparently looms large in Potter lore, and winds up played by a secret movie star whose abrupt appearance would have one day garnered applause and delight but which now encourages only groans and vegetables hurled at the screen. (One more vague non-spoiler: It shares a trick with, of all films, Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” You know, for the kids.)

Even with a smaller, more compact story — one that doesn’t necessarily demand an army of sequels, despite the threat of a new, five-film franchise — “Fantastic Beasts” hobbles around, trying to get all its characters in order, all while enacting the now obligatory world building. They’re charming characters, though. Redmayne’s spastic, remote turn is the best special effect in a film filled with them, and his three companions are equally delightful. Katherine Waterston, as a sort of wizard detective, is endearingly gawky, using the actress’ slight discomfort in her first big, big movie to its benefit. Singer Alison Sudol plays her sister: a mind-reader who sweetly has the hots for a luggish muggle played by Dan Fogler, who accidentally winds up along for the ride, seeing things he never should and will, in fact, be later wiped from his mind, “Men in Black”-style. Fogler has never been this funny or touching; watch him go full Oliver Hardy as he scampers, arms flailing, from a giant zoo animal through a snow-caked Central Park.

No character here, not even Redmayne’s arch turn, are as memorable as the trio that steered the “Harry Potter” films. But they’re charming — charming enough that they help the movie charm its way into one’s good graces, helping you forgive the occasional clunkiness and see the movie’s existence not as a cynical money-grab but as a gift to a species that needs all the nice things it can get right now. At its best it’s not a mystery or an apocalyptic romp but a hang-out movie, one that lets you roam the Art Deco warehouse of the wizard government building and nip into a magicians’ speakeasy, complete with an elfish Josephine Baker knock-off. And it lets you enjoy the company of four enjoyable leads. If an undying “Fantastic Beasts” deluge is upon us, that at least means more of Eddie Redmayne arching his neck as though it was glued to his shoulder and muttering “People find me annoying,” when he’s anything but.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge