This week marks the 15th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hitting theaters and the start of one of the more remarkable film franchises in history. With her series of books, author J.K. Rowling created a universe so vast in scope that it spawned not only eight films, but a massive theme park attraction and a play that’s currently the Hamilton of the West End. Now, Rowling has dipped her toes into uncharted waters by taking a stab at screenwriting. Her first venture is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel of sorts to the Harry Potter franchise focused around explorer Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who wrote the titular textbook on magical creatures that Harry, Ron, Hermione and every student at Hogwarts studies in class. Rowling turning a textbook into one film – let alone the other four Warner Bros has announced – seems like it could be a cash grab of the highest order.
Set in 1926 New York, Fantastic Beasts sees Newt off on a journey to America with his suitcase full of creatures on hand for to relocate a few specimens and find a few others. Unfortunately, his suitcase – which holds far more than the average piece of luggage Mary Poppins style – is pretty awful at containing its inhabitants who come slithering out. While trying to catch a small platypus creature, Newt accidentally switches his case with that of a Muggle (or as Americans call them “a No-Maj”), specifically lowly canned food factory worker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Before Newt can retrieve it, he’s apprehended by former Auror Porpentia Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) hoping to patch up her strained relationship with the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). However, the MACUSA is too busy dealing with the recently escaped dark wizard Gellert Grindlewald and Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) shoves them away as he focuses on mysterious magical plans on his own. Newt & Porpentia find Jacob and stow the magical case away in their apartment, where the No-Maj starts to fall for Porpentia’s lovely mind reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Together, the four try to capture all these beasts before MACUSA and New York’s entire No-Maj population catches onto them.
The most impressive thing about this entire Harry Potter universe is the world building. So much detail is packed into every novel in that series and even some of the films were weighed down by having to fit it all into even near-three hour run times. So. with her first turn at a film script, I was quite worried that J.K. Rowling would overflow this two hour narrative with far too much exposition. Fantastic Beasts mildly suffers from this, mainly whenever it retreads territory explored in the earlier Potterverse for the sake of keeping things palatable to a new audience. Yet, the introduction of MACUSA and the American side of magic manages to be far smoother than expected. We get the basic gist of it’s similarities to the Ministry of Magic, but are honed into the key examples that differentiate it due to American customs and the era. For example, there’s much more diverse sense of representation ot mirror America’s melting pot and a speakeasy filled with wizards & goblins blends the secrecy of prohibition & the magical world seamlessly.
If anything hurts the exposition, it’s that Eddie Redmayne is fluttering it out in his awkward fizzle of a dialect. Redmayne is someone known for making odd choices. Anyone who’s watched his extremely hammy performance in Jupiter Ascending can attest that he goes for broke. Sometimes this makes his lines slightly harder to decipher, almost as often as his quirks can be bothersome. Yet, Redmayne shows a fair share of tender love for the titular creatures he presides over, showering each one with affection no matter how unsightly or genuinely dangerous they may be. His issues are gradually outweighed by his more endearing sense of loyalty and affection for the underdogs in the world, wizarding or otherwise.
That all being said, the highlight of Fantastic Beasts truly lies with its side characters. Namely, Porpentia and Jacob. Katherine Waterston rides the right line between buzzkill and selfless as she guides both her sister and our heroes through this American magical realm without losing their quirky heads. Both are from very different ends of the spectrum, with Porpentia being desperate to return to the charitable station she once held dear and Jacob being compelled by the wondrous new world around him at every corner that goes beyond his simple dreams of being a baker. Both have clear goals from the onset and have boundless energy in their pursuits of them. Goals we as an audience can boil down to a relatable core, allowing their fascination with the over the top magical to simmer perfectly thanks to Waterston’s gumption and Fogler’s wide eyed curiosity.
Fogler in particular is a revelation in Fantastic Beasts. This may be skewed because I’ve quite frankly loathed Fogler’s usual schtick in previous comedies that make him feel like a fifth rate Jack Black at best. Yet, his more overly cartoonish side is subdued by his down to earth wonder, which is so key. The role of a normal person in the Wizarding World is one that’s rarely done beyond an occasional third rate character like a Dursley. With Fogler, we get the type of relatable awe that the audience would have in the middle of this world. This makes the stakes of him being obliviated so investing, which has even more when the surprisingly convincing chemistry with Alison Sudol comes into play. Of course, Sudol doesn’t slouch as she mixes a confident allure with an independent streak from MACUSA protocol. Despite the quick stream of consciousness nature of the story and a semi-lack of true meat, there’s a believable spark that blossoms between the two actors as they discover charm in worlds outside their own.
Honestly, Fantastic Beasts works best when it’s these four running around trying to stop these creatures. The designs are creative and perilous situations in the middle of New York make for some consistently enjoyable physical comedy. This is particularly the case with a small platypus-type creature who constantly steals jewelry and a serpent/bird hybrid that grows to accommodate empty space. Admittedly, it’s a bit disappointing to see the titular beasts as just CG, given the Harry Potter films’ ability to blend CG and practical effects. The CG work here isn’t bad necessarily, but director David Yates (who directed the last four Potter films) continues his trend of over emphasizing computer generated wizardry that crowd the fantastic practical work in the make up and set designs. They even got Ron Perlman to voice a goblin instead of give him the type of magnificent make up job he’s known to excel at.
Still, the creature hunting and escaping the clutches of MACUSA is at least more interesting than whenever Fantastic Beasts becomes more overtly plot heavy. The exposition train of revealing characters like Senator Henry Shaw Jr, his tycoon father and his magic believing brother that the former two constantly doubt. This all feels like such underwhelming filler set up for the planned sequels. There’s a promising dynamic between them and Samantha Morton‘s witch hunter character & her orphans being looked down upon for some sort of universe prejudice building, but it all gets tossed to the side for our main characters doing things we care about. They three take up just enough space for you to notice, but don’t have enough development for you to care. All of this just boils down to Jon Voight staring in wide eyed awe at magic.
The same lack of investment slithers onto Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller‘s characters. Without spoiling too much, Colin Farrell takes advantage of an easy to manipulate young man with a connection to a magical force. It’s something that shows potential, particularly as Miller shows off some Damien from The Omen style repressed rage. Yet, any sense of real character Farrell could provide is extremely watered down just for a reveal that honestly felt like a lesser rehash of an earlier Potter story. Fantastic Beasts tries very hard to develop someone like Miller to give more of a tragic angle to the finale, but the J.K. Rowling style structure of red herrings and abusive backstory used here just feels watered down, especially for a seemingly new perspective on the Harry Potter universe this should provide. None of this is helped by the fact that the magical force in question boils down to the same type of “giant city destroying menace of pixelated garbage fourth act” that has plagued modern blockbusters for nearly a decade now.
With all those problems in mind, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them still feels like a solid return to the behemoth of a franchise. The biggest concern going in was the idea of turning a fake reference book into a series of features would be a cold cynical cash grab. This is Warner Bros after all, the same studio who took a three hundred page book like The Hobbit and had Peter Jackson stretch it out to three nearly three hour long films. Yet, J.K. Rowling and the team she brought over from the later Harry Potter entries at least have the sense to offer a different perspective on the Wizarding World. Our new characters are enjoyable, the creatures are varied in behavior & design and the 1920s American perspective on magic allows for a bit more exploration into the Potterverse’s past without too many fanservicey name drops. Still, there’s plenty of room for this world to either expand or crumble with the oncoming four films in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Hopefully the seeds laid here will grow into a lovely tree branch of connective fiber for this series to flourish on. Let’s not give this too many musical numbers and endless action sequences.
Rating: (3.5 / 5)