If you’re a fan of the Harry Potter books and films, then trust me when I say Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to be a treat for you. While I myself have never read the Harry Potter books, nor was I the biggest fan of the films or main character. I was very intrigued by the overall world that was created, and was always hoping for another movie to come set in the same universe, just not centered on the Harry Potter character. Mrs. J.K Rowling, who actually wrote the script for this film, reveals a little more of the magical world by taking us to the United States and showing us how they live there. There’s actually an astounding amount of potential in this setting like Native American wizards, Voodoo witches, South American magic, and more, but Rowling only touches the tip of the iceberg here and just teases the audience with what might come. While all of the buildings and locations were very ancient in the UK, the magical locations in the US are modern (for 1926) and art deco. It’s an interesting contrast between the Old World and the New World.
My problem with this though is how at times Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them feels like two separate films.
One is a nostalgic, playful throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood that's much funnier than you expect it to be. While the other isn't much more than a constant reminder of the film's responsibilities to launch a brand new lucrative movie universe, especially in the wake of JK Rowling's revelation that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them will have four sequels. The two never gel together at times, with the latter constantly trying to interrupt the former's entertaining flow.
Set in both 1926 and the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne not mumbling for once) who arrives in New York carrying a magical briefcase that's packed to the brim with a wide variety of different creatures. But disaster strikes when No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally takes Newt's case and lets some of the creatures loose in the city.
Former Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) takes it upon herself to capture Newt, because his antics could lead to the exposure of the wizarding community. Especially since the fanatical Second Salemers, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her psycho adopted son Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller aka The ”cinematic” Flash) are intent on revealing and then eradicating wizards. At the same time the Director of Magical Security at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) becomes more and more suspicious of Tina and Newt's actions, too.
Fantastic Beasts is immediately boosted by the fact that it's led by Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything), and while I have to admit I have not been the biggest fan of his in the past, although I have to say his work in Jupiter Ascending is so looney tunes/batshit over the top that it actually made me enjoy the film whenever he was onscreen haha. Here however he emanates a quaint, peculiar likeability that manages to pull me and the other critics in as he makes Newt a combination of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, Indiana Jones, and even Charlie Chaplin. One scene in particular, where we first see and meet Newt Scamander inside his briefcase, made me almost instantly care about the character, there are numerous moments as well where Eddie Redmayne showcases a knack for Chaplin-esque physical comedy that I’ll admit I couldn’t help but smile at.
Dan Fogler's wide-eyed joy as the No-Maj that's breathing in all of the wizarding wonderment is palpable, while Alison Sudol is very bewitching as the perennially optimistic but still a little jaded Queenie. Unfortunately however Katherine Waterston's Tina is so stuck-in-the-mud and over protective to ever fully win me over, but there are enough hints -- especially in her final scene -- to suggest that she'll have shaken off this burden by the sequel.
Thanks to the continued presence of director David Yates (who directed the last four installments to the Harry Potter franchise) Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them begins with a smart confidence, it's even a little indulgent as it revels in both the hustle and bustle of the New York setting, the charming period, and the special effects and animals the film he has to showcase. Yates even embraces the genres of the age. Fantastic Beasts delves quite a bit into silent comedy and screwball terrain that's refreshing as Newt's antics spiral out of control and it all feels like a remarkably self-contained story.
Yet despite all the arresting visuals David Yates is unable to get to the jugular and build Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them to be truly spectacular in my opinion. That's mostly because Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is being waylaid by a villainous sub-plot that never fits into the over all story of monster catching. Whenever it leaves the free-spirited antics of Newt, Tina, and Queenie to provide a reminder of its foes the film immediately loses its sparkle and is just boring and mundane (Voldemort, and Bellatrix these villains are not).
Samantha Morton's scaremonger Mary Lou Barebone lacks any real edge, Colin Farrell's Percival Graves is only vaguely menacing at times but he mostly just spends all of his screen time uncomfortably brooding, while Ezra Miller's performance as Credence Barebone is far too restrained and cumbersome to ever feel sufficient. But probably the biggest problem, though in my opinion, is that they each feel more like placeholders, ones that will instantly be discarded when the larger threat of the franchise presents itself. Something that's even more blatantly obvious since Johnny Depp in his very brief cameo has already been confirmed as Gellert Grindelwald.
Fantastic Beasts is also the perfect example of the pluses and pitfalls of modern day cinema. It's the latest recent tent pole film to forgo a genuinely intimidating villain, and instead goes for an overly CGI'd, underwhelming chaotic conclusion and a major tease towards its sequels, but it also shows how special effects when properly used can both elevate and utterly captivate. The titular animals are inventive, resplendent and seamlessly integrated, while their endearing traits and personalities allow the Potter universe to expand and feel even richer.
When Newt Scamander and his pursuit of these creatures are at its forefront, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a true joy to watch unfold. But it's ultimately nowhere near the sum of its parts, and while it provides a solid foundation to build upon its numerous positives just make its reversion to blockbuster type all the more disappointing.
There's just enough romance, whimsy, creativity and eye-catching visuals to enchant in Fantastic Beasts, but its flaws ultimately come close to ruining it all.