Five years after the Harry Potter franchise came to a close, author J.K. Rowling expands her wizarding cinematic universe with the prequel spinoff "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." Setting up a promised five-movie franchise being released over the next decade, the film is set in 1926 New York City, and revolves around an entirely new cast of characters. But some of the magic seems to have diminished as "Fantastic Beasts" is hindered by its focus on world-building and setting up those future films at the expense of telling a story that's satisfying in its own right.
Directed by David Yates from a script written by Rowling herself, "Fantastic Beasts" takes its title from one of Harry's required textbooks in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," and focuses on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the fictitious author of that tome. Scamander travels from London to New York carrying with him a suitcase filled with a menagerie of endangered magical creatures, and when some of the animals manage to escape, the incident threatens the veil of secrecy that allows the wizards and witches of America to operate undetected by normal humans.
Scamander is aided in his mission to recapture the animals by Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced magical investigator hoping to restore her reputation; Jacob (Dan Fogler), a "no-maj" (non-magic folk, better known as "muggles" to Potter fans); and Tina's mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol, who is delightfully bubbly). Although wizarding law forbids relations between wizards and humans, Queenie and Jacob develop a romance, and thanks to the wonderful performances of Fogler and Sudol, their sweet relationship becomes one of the film's highlights.
While Newt's animals are on the loose, the wizarding world is descending further into chaos as a Voldemort-esque zealot named Gellert Grindelwald wages a campaign of terror that's causing headaches for President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and her security forces, headed up by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
Creating even more tension between the magical and non-magical worlds is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a puritanical "Second Salem" fundamentalist who is preaching the dangers of witchcraft while indoctrinating and abusing her adopted children. Morton does what she can with the role, but Rowling's script could have developed her more as a character beyond pure villainy.
Graves recruits Mary Lou's misfit son, Credence (a haunting Ezra Miller), in his hunt for an Obscurial, a young wizard whose forced suppression of their magical identity creates a dark force, which officials believe is responsible for a series of attacks that have terrorized the city.
There's also a briefly sketched plotline about a newspaper man (Jon Voight) and his senator son, which clearly will have ramifications in later films. But here it feels like a distraction from the main event. It is characteristic of the film's inelegantly constructed plot; all the pieces are there, but they're shoved together in ways that don't always seem natural. One can sense the strain of Rowling shoehorning these various strands into a single film, and none get the space they need to really breathe.
At times it feels as though Rowling hamstrung herself by deciding to use the "Fantastic Beasts" text as inspiration for the new series; all the time spent with its characters chasing after and containing the creatures -- Pokemon Go-style -- feels like a distraction from the darker, more interesting narrative threads. As it is, we get several increasingly silly action sequences in which the characters attempt to recapture the beasts, and end up feeling like concessions to the fact that with a title like "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," audiences are going to expect to see some, you know, fantastic beasts. It helps things considerably that the film's creatures are beautiful, personality-filled creations.
Still, the universe of witches and wizards remains an enthralling place to visit thanks to the impeccable below-the-line talent (many carried over from the Potter films). From costumes to production design, the period setting adds a fresh coat of paint to the series, and the behind-the-scenes technicians seem to have a blast filling the film's world with seemingly antiquated magic.
As Newt, Eddie Redmayne defaults to his usual whispery, fidgety schtick. It's typecasting, but it mostly works since by the character's own admission, most people find him annoying. (Although there's not much to him beyond "better with animals than people.") Tina is also a bit of a blank slate, and together the pair seem a bit nondescript to hang an entire franchise around.
I'm not the first to point out that for a series with a thematic focus on the plight of marginalized people, the lack of diversity amongst its lead characters has become a serious problem. The fact that all of the main characters are straight, white, and cisgender is sending a message whether one is intended or not. With the power and influence Rowling has, she has the ability (and I'd argue the obligation) to be as outspoken in her art as she is in life. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the future installments handle the long-hinted at romantic relationship between Grindelwald and a young Dumbledore.
Though much of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" feels rushed and thinly-sketched, there's a good chance Rowling's talent for longform storytelling will right many of these issues as the series develops and characters and themes get expanded on. Considering that plans for future films will take the series to locations around Europe during the period leading up to and through World War II, there will no doubt be plenty of real-world thematic relevance to propel the series as it moves forward. Unfortunately, that leaves this first film feeling like an appetizer meant to tide us over until the more substantial main course arrives.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of "Loving."