Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them makes a convincing and frequently stunning argument that there’s (magical) life after Harry Potter. While it’s got a few issues, this is a charming kickoff to the next big franchise.
Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) stars as writer Newt Scamander who travels to New York on an expedition with a suitcase stuffed with various creatures. His plans almost immediately go haywire after a run-in with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a kind-hearted No-Maj — non-magic user — that unleashes the beasts throughout the city. There’s a noticeable Laurel and Hardy feel in the Newt and Jacob interaction, which is fitting for a story told in the late 1920s.
Newt’s exploits quickly attract the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who hopes fixing the mess will put her back in the good graces with her superiors at the Magical Congress of the United States of America. The MACUSA is led by President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo, Selma), who’s busy dealing with a major issue that could expose the magic community to the No-Maj world. Despite the 1920s setting, Beasts does a respectable job of inclusion specifically with the Congress leadership.
Meanwhile, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks), the MACUSA’s director of Magical Security, is investigating disturbances that could spell danger for both realms.
Beasts has an embarrassment of acting riches. It’s refreshing to see an Oscar-winner so uninhibited with his performance. The role of Newt isn’t the kind of awards bait to add more hardware to his trophy case, but Redmayne gives the same kind of nuanced performance that’s earned him multiple Oscar nominations. Redmayne provides such a gentle nature that his CGI pals seem real.
Waterston’s New York accent is too forced making her overall performance a bit stiff, but she’s a likeable capable female lead. Fogler is the film’s biggest surprise as he makes for a charming, relatable audience avatar to this world of magic. His chemistry with Alison Sudol, who plays Tina’s sister Queenie, is sweet. Sudol provides a tenderhearted and disarming presence while Farrell exudes a cool, assured swagger.
Series author J.K. Rowling adapts her 2001 book, which is great for providing a pure vision direct from the mastermind behind the Potter/Beasts universe. The downside is Rowling has an encyclopedic knowledge of the material and writes in a manner that assumes every audience member has that same degree of familiarity.
While Potter mythos experts will thrill at the mention of characters like Gellert Grindelwald or Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), for newcomers the significance of these reveals is overwhelming particularly if they haven’t read the books.
The Potter franchise has always had a steeper level of accessibility than other franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even if those series throw in a random hardcore fans only Easter Egg, it doesn’t complicate the overall narrative. That’s not the case with Beasts as it makes character motivations difficult to understand in the final act.
Beasts is set 70 years before the Harry Potter saga allowing Rowling a wide amount of freedom without being bound to the eventual future events.
Director David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) has the rare skillset of being able to fully embrace the grand spectacle of a mega-blockbuster without sacrificing important elements like character development and fun.
Beasts’ effects are outstanding and do a tremendous job of providing an immersive and captivating universe. Yates directed the final four Harry Potter films and has already been announced to helm the entire five film Fantastic Beasts series. Locking him up for the series was a smart move by Warner Bros.
To Yates’ credit, even when the narrative is hard to follow, he keeps the film engaging and well-paced.
Beasts is at its accessible best when Newt is on his glorified Pokemon Go quest to catch all his creatures. That’s a relatively straightforward task despite the slew of various species introduced. And it’s an easy adventure unencumbered by the more complex Potter mythos.
A subplot involving an anti-witch extremist group led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller, We Need to Talk About Kevin) almost seems like it should be part of a much darker film. Eventually it all comes together, but connecting all those dots is kind of tricky.
Fantastic Beasts is arguably a better franchise kick-off than Harry Potter’s first installment. This is a wide open world with loose ties to a beloved property, but one that’s free enough to take exciting chances going forward.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/2016 WARNER BROS ENTERTAINMENT INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts Publishing copyright JKR