As a fan of the Harry Potter series and the wonderful universe created by author J. K. Rowling, I really wanted to like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But I didn’t find much to love, just a safe, entertaining young adult focused cinematic experience.
This new film, the first of a five-part series, is set a century before Harry’s birth and based in 1920’s New York City. Eminently likable Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is visiting Manhattan from England to obtain a rare beast for his menagerie. He bumps into “no-maj” muggle Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler) and accidentally lets Kowalski see one of Newt’s magical creatures. Not good, and a distinct violation of the rather curious laws imposed by the Magical Congress about keeping wizardkind secret.
Soon Newt is mixed up with disgraced American Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who works for the Magical Congress of the United States, while Kowalski and Tina’s flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) are busy flirting up a storm. But Scamander’s escaped beasts aren’t all that’s happening in New York City; there’s also evil energy afoot, a destructive whirlwind that proves fatal in a pivotal moment in the film.
Casting a shadow over all the events is the mysterious escape of the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who was last seen in far off Europe, but might be closer than the American wizards suspect. There’s also the anti-witch evangelist Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who lobbies against magic in NY and has a Dickensian family of adopted orphan children to help her, including the creepy Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) and downright peculiar Credence (Ezra Miller).
With its massive special effects budget and splendid visual effects, charming protagonists (in particular, Kowalski is a delightful everyman character that was always a missing piece in the Harry Potter series) and sly references to the Harry Potter universe – no spoilers here! – it would seem that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would be great fun. The problem was that the balance of story to mise-en-scene doesn’t work and the first part of the film was often boring and incomprehensible, even as the visual effects wowed the audience.
Unsurprisingly, Director David Yates (Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows) picks up his narrative energy from the later Potter movies, a dark, ominous pall over the story. Appropriate as the Potter vs Voldemort story progresses, but the earlier Potter films that introduced us to the magical world of Hogwarts were lighter and more accessible. The very first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, stands out as a light, accessible, wonder-filled and wonderful hero’s journey.
While Scamander is a likable character, his narrative is also very much that of Potter mainstay Rubeus Hagrid (endearingly portrayed by Robbie Coltrane), whose love of the fantastic beasts of the wizarding world put him at odds with school administrators and magical law. More problematic, unlike the evil Voldemort who pervades every scene in the Potter series, there was no real antagonist for the characters to rally against, a narrative mistake that removed any possible tension from the story.
The casting was off with Fantastic Beasts too: One of the most delightful aspects of the Potter movies was that the major cast were unknown to American audiences, allowing those actors to more fully inhabit their roles. In Fantastic Beasts, however, well-known faces like Jon Voight, Colin Farrel and Ron Perlman (digitally altered but still recognizable) kept reminding me that I was watching a movie.
Ultimately, there’s a reasonably satisfying story in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and it’s a comfortable return to the wizarding world of Harry Potter with a new cast of characters. They’re generally all likable, particularly Redmayne as Scamander and Fogler as Kowalski, and the exteriors and special effects are splendid, as you would expect from a film with an estimated production budget of $180 million. I was just hoping for more, for an exciting new world and sparkling narrative that would leave me excited for the next installment, and that’s not what the film delivered.