“Fantastic Beasts” casts a fantastic spell

Prequels generally have a bad reputation. While every now and then an “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” sneaks in there, many prequels are seen as unnecessary and drawn out cash-grabs that are unable to live up to the original film(s) — from the CGI-filled “Hobbit” films, to the nearly unwatchable “Star Wars: Episodes I-III.”

However, returning to the world of wizards, house elves and goblins, five years after the final “Harry Potter” film and fifteen years since “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a prequel that manages to stand out from the rest.

The film takes place seventy years before the events of the “Harry Potter” films, this time being set in North America instead of Europe. Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) stars as Newt Scamander, the quiet yet amiable former Hogwarts student turned zoologist who has come to America with a briefcase full of magical beasts. However, after mistakenly switching luggage with a ‘No-Maj’ (American term for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), resulting in some of the beasts escaping custody, Newt must quickly return them to his case before they cause too much damage on the streets of Brooklyn and expose the entire wizard community.

Newt’s quest to recapture his creatures puts him at odds against an ambiguous man named Graves (Colin Farrell), a powerful figure working for the Magical Congress of the United States — who are determined to keep magical order.

“Fantastic Beasts” succeeds as a prequel by being able to completely stand by itself without relying on the “Harry Potter” name. The film brandishes a new era of magic, complete with creative new laws and a setting that the audience is eager to explore. Written by J.K. Rowling herself, “Fantastic Beasts” is striking in its originality and continued world-building.

The creatures are all quite charming — each given their own unique personality and designed with impressive CGI (despite what the trailers may have lead you to believe).

There’s also a host of likable new human characters, all met with well-acted performances. While Eddie Redmayne provides a subtle and warm presence as Newt, audiences will be most drawn to Dan Fogler — the comedic relief character who also is given a satisfying emotional arc. Alison Sudol also gives a charismatic performance as the character of Queenie — another individual who teams up with Newt, and while Colin Farrell isn’t given a large amount of screen time, he’s able to make the most of it.

Not being a flawless film, the movie struggles when it must stand outside the four main characters’ story. The sub-plot regarding a character named Credence (Ezra Miller), a young boy who is abused by his adopted mother, and his relationship with Graves is both paced too slowly and features an unnecessarily dark tonal-shift compared to the rest of the film. Another storyline involving a newspaper executive played by Jon Voight and a group of politicians seems to contribute nothing of real value to the overall narrative as well.

While these problems are troubling, they don’t take away too much from the overall enjoyment of the film. As for now, we can’t say for certain what direction this franchise is headed (the studios are planning four more of these films). However, the first “Fantastic Beasts” does manage to succeed as a stand alone film that is worthy of the “Harry Potter” brand, and is also one of the few prequels that has some merit behind its creation.