We have, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a first for the Harry Potter Cinematic Universe: a film with a running time of about two-and-a-quarter hours, telling a story that was designed to take about two-and-a-quarter hours to tell. This was a problem for just about every one of the eight Potter films made between 2001 and 2011, sometimes to profoundly distressing effect. I have not forgotten the shrieking whirlwind of disconnected incidents that 2007's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has instead of a plot. It took visible effort for the filmmakers to shave J.K. Rowling's increasingly unwieldy doorstops of children's novels down into something that could be functionally told as a narrative within the reasonable time constraints of a mainstream Hollywood family film. "Functional" is already a too-generous way to describe some of them (Order of the Phoenix and 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are the worst offenders, to my mind), but even at their best, these films have had a distinct tendency to feel rushed and cramped and more eager to hit a checklist of necessary plot points than to find a new shape for the material that could benefit a single feature-length film.

Not so with Fantastic Beasts, which finds Rowling writing her very first original screenplay, based on the elaborate fictional history of her magical universe. The result is a film that breathes more easily than any of its predecessors, without going too far in the direction of the plonking bloat of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets from 2002, the only one of the eight Potter films that largely succeeded at telling a complete, self-contained story. I would point out that this isn't quite the same as suggesting that Fantastic Beasts has a "better" story than the series that birthed it, merely that it's a better storytelling vehicle; in fact, it's a bit tepid and flavorless in some ways, set in a generic version of 1920s New York that Rowling hasn't imagined nearly as fully as the British wizard school of her books. Still, the world-building here has more than its share of charms, less because of anything that's introduced than because of the new perspective: for the first time, we see what adults get to do in this universe, and the adults in question are mostly pretty entertaining folk to spend time with.

Chief among the new characters (or rather, the characters who've only ever been mentioned in passing & offscreen) is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an immensely shy and awkward wizard from the UK who has spent the last several years touring the world and collecting data on magical creatures for a book he's planning to write. He's collected the creatures, too, keeping a sizable menagerie inside the space-defying battered suitcase he carries around everywhere. It should come as absolutely no surprise that early in the course of the film, this suitcase will inadvertently pop open, letting several of the fantastic beasts out to roam around and cause general mischief in New York, where Newt has arrived on secret, private business. Nor should it come as too much of a surprise (because director David Yates foreshadows it with gawping insert shots of two identical cases that scream for our attention in the most flat-footed way) that this happens as a result of a mix-up with a regular non-magical human, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) - a "No-Maj" in the new American slang that Rowling has coined to replace the old British "Muggle", and it's an unusually tin-eared neologism for a writer who has usually demonstrated a strength in such things - who was just trying to get a bank loan to open a bakery.

Newt's the protagonist and all, but I think Kowalski is the key to everything that makes Fantastic Beasts work: he is the secret ingredient that takes a step back from the wish-fulfillment of super-gifted chosen one Harry Potter to make someone we can properly identify with in one of these movies. He's giddy as a schoolboy in witnessing the magical worlds around him, which is something the franchise has lacked since all the way back in 2001, when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was new. And frankly, Yates is far better at staging magical worlds to look actually magical than Chris Columbus even dreamed of being 15 years ago. The moment when Kowalski enters Newt's zoo-suitcase is spectacular in the most specific way: it provides a huge range of inventive, impressive visuals, captured with a soaring, woozy camera that rises and pivots and sweeps around corners, as Yates and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot capture something of the dazzled human's POV. The moment is pure "look at this! No, wait, look at THIS!" movie magic, so eager to please that even the whiffy CGI that plagues the whole movie (and has ever plagued the franchise: not one single Harry Potter film ever boasted top-of-the-line effects work) simply doesn't matter; I mean, it matters in that it doesn't look very real, but it doesn't matter in that the florid camerawork, and might as well begrudingly mention James Newton Howard's bullying but objectively effective score as well, is so transporting that it's easy to want to believe the effects. That is the heart of great popcorn moviemaking, to push through the dodgy bits with such enthusiasm that we celebrate them rather than complain.

So anyway, cheers to Kowalski, and to Fogler's shockingly effective Everyman performance (my encounters with Folger previous to now have all been uniformly negative). He makes a fine entrée into the film's world, which is mostly very good, if not terribly surprising: Stuart Craig's production design differs from his other eight movies in this universe mostly just in terms of the added Art Deco, and the chance to make a version of '20s New York that feels inspired more by movies set in that period than by the documented reality of it, but whatever. This is a fantasy.

The actual story of the film isn't terribly exciting either, and less easy to make excuses for. Newt's missing creatures have hit New York just at the same time as a major crisis involving some unseen force destroying things, and the wizarding community is on the brink of discovery by the normal humans if this doesn't stop. The leader of all U.S. wizards, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) is only barely holding things together, and her head Auror (the wizard police, I think? The movie's vocabulary is not defined for those of us without encyclopedic knowledge of this setting, which is all for the good of its structural integrity, but tedious anyway), a grim-faced fellow named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) has taken the lead on tracking it down. Meanwhile, Newt crosses paths with disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), obsessively tracking the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a paranoiac anti-magic group led by the zealot Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller) has caught Graves's eye for reasons that eventually become clear. Together they, Kowalski, and Tina's telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) track the magic animals down while simultaneously semi-accidentally uncovering the secret of what's going on, what it has to do with the NSPS, and how the obviously-untrustworthy Graves connects to the nascent fascist wizard faction being led in Europe by the notorious Gellert Grindelwald.

That seems more complicated and dense than it actually is: most of the film just follows the quartet of heroes poking around, and that is by far the best part of it. It's a double-edged triumph: the seeds the film plants for its four planned sequels, mostly involving the impending war between Good Wizards and Nazi Wizards, are deadening, particularly the unbearably awful climactic scene where we learn just what Graves has been up to and why. And it seems likely to be the case that the rest of the Fantastic Beasts mini-series is going to be required to jettison everything that makes this one so pleasurable: the sense of camaraderie between Newt and Kowalski, mostly, and the enjoyable feeling of discovery as we get some fresh sense of what makes magic magical. Fantastic Beasts has relatively mild stakes, mostly surrounding the slow and steady growth of its main characters and their deepening sense of each other, and it helps that they've been inhabited by generally strong actors: Redmayne is the only onscreen person of any particular importance whose performance feels like something is seriously lacking (he can do this kind of "adorable stammering nerd" routine by heart at this point, and his tics are generally annoying rather than endearing; I'd also like to punch his floppy hair right off his damn head, but that's of course not the actor's fault). Some, like Morton, have fuck-all to do; but giving microscopic roles to enormously talented actors is a longstanding tradition of these movies.

"Not much happens and the film is worst when it has the most consequential narrative stakes" is a weird kind of praise, but it's definitely when Fantastic Beasts is at its best. The pleasure of Rowling's writing is always first and foremost the world she sketches out, and the easygoing character adventure of this film, handled by Yates with unfussy but sincere workmanlike direction, gives us the best chance to inhabit it. This is a solid, self-contained piece of basic, honest blockbuster filmmaking, free of the wearying grandeur of its predecessors even if that means it's also missing their sense of mythological greatness. I have no expectations that its sequels will maintain its sense of delicacy, but for this one moment, it's nice to have a chance to wander back into this well-worn universe.