Fantastic beasts are plentiful in this magical yet slightly subpar re-intro to a familiar wizarding world.
I want a fantastic beast of my own! I’m incredibly relieved that there are moments in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that made me wish the wizarding world was real, and that I was privy to it. (I guess if I wasn’t privy to it, I wouldn’t know if it was real.) Anyway, one of the most wonderful characteristics of the Harry Potter books and early films was the wonder and charm they emitted. Sadly, as the trio of young wizards grew up, the plots became less warm and wondrous and more cold, pale, and dark. David Yates directed the final four Harry Potter films, and he’s back in the helm for the first return to that universe since 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. This return, the first installment of a new Fantastic Beasts series, isn’t as light and funny as The Sorcerer’s Stone, so despite a five year wait-time since the last movie (and 15 since the first), it’s very reminiscent of the dark Deathly Hallows. Part of this is due to the main characters being in their adulthood to start, so the inexperience and innocence of young wizards isn’t front and center. Another part is due to the 1920s New York setting of Fantastic Beasts — whereas most of the Harry Potter series took place in and around Hogwarts and fantastical woodland areas. And this new story is also a bit weaker than the initial Harry Potter entry. Needless to say, there are many reasons why Fantastic Beasts doesn’t capture the charm and magical pull of the original Harry Potter films, yet the beasts and characters fit right in to the world we’ve been missing for half a decade.
For those who’ve read the book, I actually haven’t and am therefore unsure how closely it follows the storyline. For those who are watching Fantastic Beasts without a clue what it’s about, here’s the smallest summary I can give without spoiling anything — It takes place within the Harry Potter universe. But for slightly more elaboration — A magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) ventures to New York in 1926 with a magic suitcase full of fantastic creatures. Some of the creatures escape, which pulls Scamander, a lowly baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and officer of the Magical Congress of the USA, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) into a wild goose chase. Perhaps, though, more is at stake than just the recapture of a few crazy critters. Muahaha! …Kinda.
The cast is really wonderful, especially Fogler. While Redmayne carries most of the film’s story-driven weight, it’s Fogler as an innocent muggle and Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein (Porpentina’s sister) who combine to carry the film’s heart, humor, and most engaging onscreen chemistry. They’re ridiculously charming. The beasts are also quite charming, with the Niffler taking the top prize as most lovable CG creature, probably the cutest one since Baby Groot. Each creature is well-designed and animated by the film’s graphics team, combining elements of various real world animals into each one the film introduces. So, to say that the fantasy elements are lacking in Fantastic Beasts wouldn’t be accurate. There is magic aplenty! The enchantment of entering the wizarding world for the first time, that’s what’s lacking from this dark and lopsided story.
Fantastic Beasts is also not as much intended for children as the original Harry Potter stories. Because of this, the story dives into darker territory much earlier on than in the Potter timeline alone. Within this new tale, we’re served a healthy dose of child abuse (more violent than just putting a child under the stairs), grotesque killings, and scary villains. Sure, all of these were present in Sorceror’s Stone, but not to the twisted and violent degree they’re offered here. Thus, it’s hard to fall back into the comfortable smile-inducing spell of this world, like we experienced via Harry’s train ride to Hogwarts, when the first installment of this new series is filled with treachery and darkness. Luckily, the creatures, Mr. Scamander, Kowalski, and the Goldstein sisters provide more than enough watchability and interest to be excited for the next chapter. As it stands, Fantastic Beasts primarily serves as an introduction to the new characters. Maybe their adventures will be more fun in the next one.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them comes out in theaters, Friday 11/18.