JK Rowling makes her screenwriting debut with this return to the wizard’s world, a prequel set in the 1920s. Is it magical? Critic Nicholas Barber weighs in.

You might have thought that after seven novels and eight films, JK Rowling had said everything she had to say about witchcraft and wizardry, but now it seems that Harry Potter’s schooldays were just the beginning. Rowling’s first film as screenwriter is set in the same hocus-pocus universe as Harry’s adventures, but it shifts the action thousands of miles and dozens of years away from Hogwarts – all the way to New York in 1926. And Rowling and her colleagues – especially the film’s director, David Yates, and its production designer, Stuart Craig – romp through this unfamiliar setting with all the glee of schoolchildren who have just been let out for the summer holidays. Free at last of all those black robes and shadowy gothic corridors, they dazzle us with gleaming skyscrapers and glittering flapper fashions, mythical monsters and other dimensions. To quote Alice Cooper (who used to claim he pinched his name from a witch): school’s out forever.

Newt is a bumbling British wizard who could be a distant relative of The Doctor

As exhilarating as all the new sights and sounds are, though, it’s soon apparent that Rowling et al are enjoying their relocation a little too much. A major flaw of the later Harry Potter films was that they crammed in so many characters and incidents from the ever-longer novels that they were baffling to anyone who didn’t know the books by heart. What’s slightly disappointing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that, even though it isn’t adapted from a novel, it has a similar problem. Rowling’s superabundant imagination won’t let the story build up momentum: she keeps shoving minor characters and irrelevant details in its path.

In theory, the film’s hero is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a bumbling British wizard who could be a distant relative of The Doctor. Wearing an overcoat and a bowtie, Newt visits New York with a Tardis-like suitcase containing all the weird and wonderful creatures he has gathered on his travels, from flying snakes to four-winged eagles, from treasure-hunting platypuses to gargantuan rhinos thatglow and throb disturbingly when they catch the scent of a potential mate.

The shy, stooping Newt tries to keep to himself: Redmayne plays him as if he is always trying to hide behind his luxuriant fringe. But within hours of arriving in Manhattan, he has accidentally switched suitcases with an ordinary human – or No-Maj, to use the American term for Muggle – called Jacob Kowalski (the likeable Dan Fogler). When Jacob opens the suitcase, several magical animals are let loose in the urban jungle.

The film glows with romance, wonder and good-natured humour

The timing of this escape is particularly unfortunate. Apparently, friction between wizards and mere mortals is already so intense that it could explode into war at any moment. Hmmm. There is something not quite right about this scenario, if you stop to think about it. How can there be friction between the two parties when No-Majs don’t even know that Majs exist? And why should the Majs care anyway, considering that there are thousands of them all around the world, with their own highly organised and well-resourced society? It’s not like the X-Men series, in which the mutants amount to a handful of feared outsiders. It’s not even like Men in Black, in which humans keep an eye on immigrant extraterrestrials. As an allegory for communities separated by prejudice, wizards and non-wizards just aren’t fit for purpose.

The franchise that lived

Still, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn’t let you stop to think about any of this for long. In order to catch his fabulous wildlife before it causes trouble, Newt teams up with Tina (Katherine Waterston), an earnest police-witch, and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (singer-songwriter Alison Sudol), a breathy blonde bombshell who takes an unlikely shine to the rotund Jacob. (Not since Ron got together with Hermione has a man snagged a sorceress so far out of his league.) When they are dashing around New York together, from Central Park Zoo to a goblin speakeasy, the film is a frantically energetic, sometimes scary caper which glows with romance, wonder and good-natured humour.

But Newt’s monster hunt is only one of many plot strands: there is so much else going on that you often forget about the fantastic beasts altogether. There are the meetings in the steampunk headquarters of the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, where the typewriters clack away by themselves and the lifts are operated by grouchy elves (the one truly oppressed minority in the film). There is a puritanical anti-witchcraft evangelist (Samantha Morton) with a downtrodden adoptive son (Ezra Miller). There is a tycoon’s heir (Josh Cowdery) with presidential ambitions, a character whose sole purpose is to tempt reviewers to make Trump comparisons. And there is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a wizard police chief who is way too cool and swaggering for a character with the name Percival.

The climax is one of those post-Marvel jobs in which a digital effect wrecks a city

Make no mistake, this is terrific stuff. Almost every scene has something ingenious and beautifully designed for you to gasp at, and the supernatural hijinks are all underpinned by Rowling’s sincere pro-tolerance message. But it’s all at the expense of the supposed protagonists: the nerdy Newt, the warm and cuddly Jacob, the brave Tina and the wide-eyed Queenie. It’s frustrating that the film cuts away from them every two minutes to check in on someone else. And it’s annoying that so many of the characters are under-used. By the time the film reaches its hectic climax – one of those post-Marvel jobs in which a digital effect wrecks a city – it’s clear that Jacob and Queenie could have been edited out without affecting the central storyline. For that matter, would it have made much difference if Newt and Tina had been edited out, too?

Rowling doesn’t know when to stop, it seems. She can’t help filling her writing with all sorts of minute details which not only stir up memories of the Harry Potter saga but also whet our appetite for all the sequels which are already in the works. She has announced that Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is the first in a five-part series, and I’m sure it will be a series to savour. But if you want to see a film which is satisfying in and of itself, you won’t find it here.

★★★★☆

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