It’s been a little over five years since the last “Harry Potter” film and the end of the franchise. We thought we’d said our tearful goodbyes to the Wizarding World and all its beauty, wonder, and yes, its parallels to real-world issues of both human and political nature. J.K. Rowling, however, still had more stories to tell. Based on the side book of the same name, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” invites us back into the world of magic. However, despite its wonder and engagement in worldly issues, the film is entertaining but mediocre and detached in its delivery.
Just like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Fantastic Beasts” sets up a lot of fascinating subplots that will no doubt tie back into the timeline that was initially introduced with Harry and co. The fact that this new franchise will span five films and explore several decades worth of story is intriguing and expands upon what we already know of this fantastical world and the people who occupy its constantly reshaped spaces. On that note, however, the film gets so caught up in its own sense of magic that it has a tendency to take the focus away from its characters.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is newly arrived to the United States from England. A former student of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, Newt reminds me of Hagrid in his deep love and protective nature towards what many consider to be dangerous and wild creatures. Newt believes these creatures to be misunderstood and unfairly treated. Inside his Mary Poppins-like suitcase is a seemingly endless cave of wonder–creatures big and small, of various shapes and colors, and abilities.
Newt’s in America for less than a few hours before trouble begins to crop up. One of his creatures escapes and in the chaos of trying to find him, Newt crosses paths with two people: A witch named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror, and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle) whose involvement in the Wizarding World happens by accident. However, the Magical Congress of the U.S. (MACUSA) isn’t worried about such things when they’ve got a shadow terrorizing New York City and setting the New Salemers, a group of people convinced that there are witches, on high alert. Tensions are also high as Gellert Grindelwald (a name familiar from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”) continues his rise to power. Together, along with Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), the foursome must figure out what is terrorizing New York City and stop it before a war threatens to break out between the magic and non-magic worlds.
Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls comes in the form of the movie’s villain. This plot ties into something far larger and something that will continue to develop throughout the remaining films, but in “Fantastic Beasts,” it just feels kind of hollow. The film feels less like a movie that can stand on its own and is more concerned about fitting into a larger narrative. This takes away from the enjoyment of the film because there are several scenes that come off disjointed and don’t quite fit into other subplots that are happening at the same time. The film serves as a single piece of puzzle in a franchise that will have five movies and, because of this, “Fantastic Beasts’ doesn’t play upon its own strengths. It tries to fit the franchise mold to its own detriment.
The film does continue to tackle, as Rowling’s previous work also does, the issues of tolerance, the state of Muggle/Wizard relations, and the swiftness in spewing hatred rather than assessing and understanding people and situations. The film takes place post-World War I, but the film’s themes are still valid and reminiscent of present times. The film also reflects upon the uncertainty of the times and the shaky tether that threatens to snap at any given moment between two sides often hits too close to home.
Ultimately, at least “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” doesn’t try to imitate the exact same dynamic that worked in the “Harry Potter” series and this is appreciated. Redmayne is subtly charming and brings a sense of joy to the role. The remainder of the supporting characters are all memorable in their own ways and their dynamic generally delightful (and in Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller’s cases, slightly creepy). However entertaining and magical the film might be though, it isn’t without issues. There’s a lack of fluidity that causes certain scenes (important scenes) to feel lackluster and weightless. So the film is a decent trip back into the world of magic, but it isn’t a strong film on its own.
"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" suffers from a lack of fluidity that causes certain scenes (important scenes) to feel lackluster and weightless. So the film is a decent trip back into the world of magic, but it isn't a strong film on its own.