Do we need anything new from the Harry Potter universe?
This is the question plaguing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the new prequel spinoff (it’s complicated) and launchpad for a new franchise based in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Though it takes place in 1920s New York and sends new outsider hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) after his own set of dark forces, Fantastic Beasts spends most of its time trying to remind viewers why Rowling’s world captured so many hearts, suggesting how much more there is to explore, and hey, guys, remember how much you love Harry Potter?!
Rowling’s first screenplay adaptation of her own work does everything it can to justify this movie’s existence as a new cornerstone of her world, weaving in new histories and fun facts about wizarding that she didn’t get to cover in the original series.
But the truer intent of Fantastic Beasts reveals itself as veteran Harry Potter director David Yates continues to swoop the camera like he’s mapping out a blueprint for Universal’s inevitable Fantastic Beasts roller coaster.
Once I accepted that I wasn’t watching a movie so much as a marketing opportunity, I could focus my attention on the rest of what Fantastic Beasts had to offer.
The worst parts of Fantastic Beasts belong to its plot
Let’s get this out of the way now: I loved Harry Potter to distraction as a kid and well into my adulthood. I hung on every word Rowling wrote; all I wanted was for her to write a million more for me to absorb. If I could’ve unlatched a hinge on my own head and poured the books in for maximum absorption, I would’ve screamed, “ALOHOMORA!” and gotten those suckers in there.
And even though those days are largely behind me, I still thought the prospect of having a new Harry Potter canon in my life might spark something like excitement. Surely seeing a full-blown adaptation of Rowling’s slim book of the same name could be interesting, especially when interwoven with the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the dark wizard who was Voldemort before Voldemort was Voldemort. And if nothing else, surely the adventures of a magical-creature enthusiast careening around 1920s New York City would be exciting.
As it turns out, not so much.
The basics of the story are these: Newt comes to America with his suitcase full of fantastic beasts to repatriate one of said fantastic beasts, when another escapes and chaos ensues. Soon enough, plucky witch Tina (Katherine Waterston) takes him to the Magical Congress to answer for his lax attitude toward keeping magic under wraps, most notably by neglecting to wipe the memory of affable non-wizard baker Jacob (Dan Fogler).
That plot is harmless enough. Redmayne fully embraces Newt’s awkward charm, even if he spends most of his time stretching his face into a panicked smile reminiscent of a Muppet trying to grin through immense pain. Waterston unfortunately doesn’t have much to do beyond tearing up at various points of peril, but Alison Sudol sparkles as her telepathic sister Queenie, especially when playing against Fogler.
The main problems come when Fantastic Beasts tries to venture outside the wonderful weirdness of Newt and his love for magical creatures to become a bigger story — maybe even allegory — about the creeping darkness of the wizarding world.
As Newt tries to close his Pandora’s box, the ominously named Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) stalks about the city in search of a powerful and mysterious force. His main source of information on the streets is Credence (Ezra Miller), a quivering teen who’s stuck in a Dickensian nightmare that’s basically Fagin’s child gang, but focused on handing out anti-witchcraft pamphlets instead of pickpocketing strangers.
All the while, the Magical Congress is trying to keep Grindelwald’s extremists at bay by ... well, it’s unclear, but the movie suggests it mostly involves having meetings in dimly lit rooms.
Oh, and there’s some kind of subplot featuring Jon Voight pushing his senator kid to power with his own newspaper coverage, but it’s about as much of an afterthought as this sentence, so we’ll move along.
See, Fantastic Beasts isn’t just a whimsical tale of Newt chasing mischievous Nifflers and gelatinous rhinos around the city. It’s not even about the rise of Grindelwald. It’s about setting the stage for four(!) more movies. Almost all of these dozen or so plots end with, “To be continued.”
The result is that none of Fantastic Beasts’ stories truly get a chance to breathe beyond their cursory consideration. Given the fact that the movie’s narratives are so thin they’re practically translucent, it’s a good thing Yates and the Fantastic Beasts CGI team do their damnedest to give us something pretty to look at.
The best parts of Fantastic Beasts belong to its fantastic beasts
Every time Fantastic Beasts has to move the story forward, it stumbles along like a restless kid dragging herself to school when all she wants to do is play with her coloring books.
Rowling’s script is enthusiastic, but too weighed down by belabored history lessons to soar on its own. But the second Newt’s Niffler rears its twitchy face, it becomes clear that letting Newt’s creatures into the world is all this movie wants — or knows how — to do without hesitation.
And so when Fantastic Beasts indulges the side of itself that just wants to marvel at Rowling’s snow globe of wizarding wonders, it truly can be magical.
When Newt shimmies down his suitcase and into his menagerie — filled to the brim with galloping, winged, phosphorescent, snuggling animals — the screen lights up just as much as his eyes.
When Tina lets Newt and Jacob into her apartment, Queenie conjuring up an apple strudel with pastry slithering itself into ribbons mid-air is a gorgeous sight to behold.
And when that dark force Graves was searching for unleashes itself upon the cobblestoned city, it doesn’t quite make sense — but its twisting furls of jet-black smoke provide a welcome distraction from the monster’s confusing origins as they slither across the screen like ink in water, dark and angry and poisonous.
These are the moments when Fantastic Beasts feels like it’s doing what it was meant to do: diving back into the world that kept millions of children reading far past their bedtimes, that keeps Harry Potter relevant and beloved today. These scenes find joyful, creative, and new things to say about a world that’s been seemingly trod to death between the original books, the movies, the theme parks, the merchandise, the fanfiction, and so on.
So when seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it’s best to just take in all the glimmering wonders of Newt Scamander’s suitcase and shrug off the stories until the franchise picks them back up again — or in other words, to take the same approach as the movie itself.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is now playing.