Ever since the “Harry Potter” cinematic franchise came to a thrilling conclusion back in 2011, fans (“Potterheads”) have been clamoring for more from the exciting world of wizardry that author J.K. Rowling had created so intricately in her books. Luckily for them, there was still so much more to tell, including further adventures of “The Boy Who Lived” and those of Newt Scamander… the author of a textbook about magical creatures? Admittedly, the latter doesn’t sound like it would be particularly astonishing, but for a chance to return to this wondrous universe, there seems little doubt that fans would give it a try, regardless of what the actual plotline was.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (named for the eventual title of the textbook) tells the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who has traveled to New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures. It doesn’t take long for one of them to get loose and run amok at a bank, and yet, somehow it goes unnoticed by just about everyone. However, Scamander’s attempts to stop it do not go unnoticed, entangling him with a no-maj (the American word for “muggle”) by the name of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and an American Wizard named Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). To make matters worse, a mix-up in suitcases results in even more of Scamander’s creatures being set free upon New York City.
Meanwhile, we learn that there is a malevolent force on the loose, and that a high-ranking wizard official, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), has been using the excuse of the escaped creatures to cover it up while he tries to track it down with the help of a young boy, Credence (Ezra Miller). As if our heroes didn’t have enough on their hands with a number of animals running loose across the city, they must also deal with the sinister entity that could very well end up revealing the existence of the wizarding world to the no-majs, a situation that would inevitably cause chaos.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is one of those films that starts off promisingly enough by almost immediately getting the plot started and introducing us to most of the amusing characters in its first few minutes, but as the films goes on, you start to realize that there’s something missing. You might not be able to put your finger on it until somewhere near the halfway point, but you eventually realize that the film is not really moving forward in any significant way.
Sure, Scamander and his friends start to collect the magical creatures around the city in an effort to prevent their discovery, but in terms of actual plotting, there’s very little that’s helping to drive the film forward. It tries to set stakes along the way as we learn the danger of the “Obscurial,” and yet, there’s scarcely any advancement on this side of the story either, at least not until near the very end of the film. Inevitably, this makes most of the film feel like it’s rather stretched out as it tries to fill up a runtime of over two hours with action sequences and smaller character scenes, with the latter helping in part, but only so much.
I know this makes it sound like it’s a pretty bad film, but there are a number of positive elements to be found in it as well. For starters, it has to be said that the amusing characters are the driving force behind the entire film. Scamander is such a naïve delight, and is played to perfection by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, that it seems almost impossible that anyone else could have taken the role. Making up the rest of our heroes are Dan Fogler as Jacob, Katherine Waterson as Porpentina, and Alison Sudol as Queenie (Porpentina’s sister), all of whom deliver a number of delightful comedic moments and help give the film a boundless energy that keeps the audience at least partially engaged.
You also have to admire the stunning special effects. Of course, over the span of ten years, we saw dazzling effects throughout the eight “Harry Potter” films, so it’s no surprise that they’d be equally spectacular here. Most of them are devoted to giving us some very imaginative creatures, including a gigantic rhino-esque animal, a few birds, and one little guy who has an irresistible draw to shiny objects. This is on top of the usual spells (transportation, attacks, and miscellaneous) that we’re used to seeing in these adventures. If nothing else, the film will dazzle your eyes as it parades its incredible designs across the screen.
That being said, you end up wishing that it had all been in service to a better story, one that contained a little more substance. The sad part of it is that it was written by J.K Rowling herself, so you would think that there would at least be an enchanting narrative that would keep you engaged. Then again, you have to consider the fact that she’s never written a screenplay before, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that it turned out this way, but then you have to wonder why this was allowed in the first place. Stranger still is the fact that Steve Kloves (the screenwriter behind seven out of eight “Harry Potter” films) was on board as a producer, so why not just have him write it?
Whatever the reason (a condition to getting it made perhaps?), the resulting film is rather forgettable and ends up feeling like more of a set up for the sequels that we’ll be seeing in a few years. Again, it’s not a terrible attempt at a spinoff. The main characters are certainly likeable enough, and are definitely worthy of another chance. However, Rowling truly needs to buckle down and think through the narrative she wants to tell to give them the big screen adventure they deserve. There are some pieces here that work, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get it where it needs to be. 2.5/4 stars.