An awkward, yet impossibly dapper Englishman (who happens to be a wizard) frantically pursues an adorable, platypus-like creature (who happens to be a kleptomaniac) through a bustling New York City building. The sequence is enchanting, comical and instantly appealing. Outside, a woman, who represents the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group of non-magical humans bent on exposing and eradicating wizards and witches, proselytizes with apocalyptic fury. So begins Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with its tone, one of whimsy spiked with menace, firmly set in place.

Though it shares a genus with a blockbuster franchise of movies and books, Fantastic Beasts proudly stands as its own idiosyncratic species. Set in Jazz Age Manhattan, and shot in a muted color palette, the film establishes a new visual and narrative vernacular for J.K. Rowling’s imaginative wizarding universe. It’s not only that particular terms have changed—in America, a muggle is called a “no-maj” (short for “no magic”), while the Ministry of Magic’s stateside counterpart is the Magical Congress of the U.S.A. (aka, the MCUSA). Here, Rowling’s protagonists are full-grown adults living in the big city, a bold shift from the adolescent heroes and academic setting of the Harry Potter series.

Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, with a goofball grin fixed on his face), a Hogwarts-reject turned magical naturalist, a wizarding Charles Darwin. He travels to America to return a griffin-like monster named Frank to its Arizona birthplace. Scamander’s best-laid plans are, of course, soon thwarted. After a classic switcheroo, his enchanted suitcase (filled with fauna of the titular variety) accidentally ends up in the pudgy hands of a gentle, no-maj underdog named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, lovable and excellent). A bevy of beasts break free and start to wreak havoc on the Big Apple. Suddenly, Newt and Jacob’s fates intertwine with those of two magical sisters, the former-Auror Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) and her clairvoyant sibling Queenie (Alison Sudol). With Newt’s specimens on the loose, this wonderful quartet of characters, on the run from MCUSA officials, must recapture them before the realms of no-maj and wizard irrevocably collide.

Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, takes this simple premise and complicates it to the point of incomprehension. Much of Fantastic Beasts, the first of five planned Harry Potter prequels, feels like groundwork for future movies. The apparent villain, Percival Graves (a crop-cutted Colin Farrell), Director of Magical Security and Newt’s very own Inspector Javert, manipulates a pair of orphaned wizards on the side, for some reason. What his plan amounts to, exactly, remains murky, especially when the film reaches its climactic twist and abracadabra casting reveal. How any of this relates to a separate, Citizen Kane-like subplot is also never fully explained. You could fly a Quidditch team through the film’s plot holes.

Despite its narrative morass, Fantastic Beasts offers a prime example of how to expand a beloved franchise into a wider, shared universe. Director David Yates, a longtime Potter-movie alum, nimbly yada-yadas over Rowling’s serpentine script and focuses on cinematic thrills and poignant characterizations. Each beastly chase features remarkable visual wit and creativity. An improbable love story, the picture’s beating heart, finds Rowling, the prodigious world-builder, at her most relatable and refreshingly no-maj.

Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is, like Harry Potter, a non-entity. Instead, he’s a vector by which the audience rides through a fabulous fictional ecosphere—from a mystical, Prohibition-era speakeasy to a grand, subterranean wand battle. All the rest is mere clatter, the echoes of tales to come. Fantastic Beasts may be overstuffed and half-baked, but I’ll take that over imitation and cynicism any day. Rowling and Yates have delivered an ingenious, and at times, heartbreaking behemoth. Though it may not be perfect, or even altogether understandable, Fantastic Beasts proves that a brand expansion can clear the way for an inventive and bewitching detour.

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