Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

At long last, a return to the world of “Harry Potter” — and a test to see what kind of legs “Potter”-themed but Potter-less stories might have on the big screen. Directed by franchise mainstay David Yates with a script by no less than J.K. Rowling herself, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has all the right minds and talents to guide the brand into the future and capture more than just the “Potter”-obsessed audience.

When it comes down to it, not being a “Harry Potter” story is the toughest piece of “Fantastic Beasts” to swallow. There’s no substituting for Harry, Ron, Hermione and co. Yet thanks to Rowling’s direct involvement, however, we feel warmly invited into another corner of the Potterverse, one that exudes the same exceptional world-building that has charmed millions of readers and viewers over the last nearly 20 years.

“Fantastic Beasts” follows magical creatures collector and activist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who arrives in New York City in 1926 on a secretive mission who becomes unwittingly entangled in American wizarding business after a creature escapes his briefcase. In his effort to wrangle it, he performs magic in front of a no-maj (the American term for “muggle”) named Kowalski (Dan Fogler). He’s caught by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a witch working for the Magical Congress (MACUSA) and turned in to MACUSA authorities who — led by auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) — have been investigating devastating attacks by a invisible magical force, and are dealing with immense political pressure from a senator, not to mention a witch hunt led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted children.


It’s all a bit messy, but with every new character and creature, Rowling builds out more of her world, fleshing it out with details true to the spirit of “Harry Potter.” It’s something only she could write — at least for this first foray into uncharted “Potter” territory. The many characters and story components would’ve probably worked better with more time to develop (i.e. as a book), but we’re still easily pulled into her story.

The casting is outstanding and the quality of the performances nearly overcomes the lack of emotional investment we feel in the characters as a result of the plot complexities. Redmayne, for example, defies the typical portrait of a protagonist. He’s guarded, socially awkward, yet unabashed, which makes sense given his profession, but Redmayne gives it such nuance. We are left wanting to know more about him, and all the characters: Waterston is a refreshing change of a pace for a leading lady and even Fogler defies his typecasting in a lovely way. Curiosity toward the characters isn’t a substitute for investment, but it’s a consolation prize few blockbusters with similar troubles are even capable of handing out.


The tone of “Fantastic Beasts” is a little more whimsical than the grimness of the last few “Potter” films, even though all the main characters are adults and many facets of the plot (and concepts) cater toward a more mature audience. The whimsy comes in the many creatures and all the hijinks involved with finding and catching the ones that get loose. Unfortunately, the final action sequence feels more like a scene from “Transformers,” but the smaller ones are clever and inspired, usually involving some quirk that educates us about a particular creature.

If “Fantastic Beasts” is just about building new structures and establishing new parameters for more films set in Rowling’s world, then it does its job. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book, was one of the weaker books and films of the series as a whole, but undoubtedly it generated a curiosity to see more of where the characters and story might go, and it went to rather amazing places. If the same holds true of this would-be franchise, we’re all in good shape.

 

3.5/5 Stars

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell

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