'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures
3

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a new beginning for J.K. Rowling's wizarding world, and further proof that it isn't ending anytime soon. 15 years after the Harry Potter films launched, and over five years after the supposed last goodbye to Rowling's world, this new start goes back decades in time to a whole new continent called America. But while things are very much different from the Potter saga, this magical series has some of the the same growing pains in getting started.

In 1926 New York, America's magical community is determined to keep its existence secret from "No-Majs" and with good reason, given that an anti-magic fanatic wants to bring back the Salem Witch Trials and a magical fanatic named Grindelwald is attacking humans and wizards throughout Europe. Through all this, an unassuming former Hogwarts student named Newt Scamander has come to America for the first time, carrying a case full of magical creatures he looks after despite a ban against bringing such 'beasts' to the U.S. But in almost no time, Newt's case gets him in trouble with an ex Magical Congress investigator named Tina, all before a No-Maj named Jacob accidentally takes the case and lets the rest of the beasts out. Between that, a far deadlier magical force moving through New York, a sinister magical security chief and an abused human young man named Credence, Newt and his new associates risk sparking war if they can't contain the damage.

For the first time, Rowling herself has written a wizarding world script for the big screen, all while keeping veteran Potter director David Yates on board to film it. Familiarity with the Potter series isn't all that necessary to follow along with Fantastic Beasts, although it helps with a few important references to past Potter related names. Otherwise, Fantastic Beasts does try to be its own kind of creature and series, to its credit.

Still, the similarities between this opening Beasts chapter and the opening of the Potter movie series aren't always positive. While Chris Columbus's opening Potter films laid the groundwork for what was to come, they had their share of limitations, as it took future sequels to really expand the potential, the magic and the epic scale and themes of the wizarding world. Likewise, Fantastic Beasts lays the groundwork for something potentially special and introduces the right ingredients for it, but it doesn't always come together in this first installment.

Things start out promising enough, with an opening montage of Daily Prophet headlines setting up the turbulent times of the magic and non-magic world. Once Yates gets to New York, it is clear right from the start that his version of it needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And there is an inventive early sequence at a bank where Newt chases after a scene-stealing kleptomaniac of a creature.

After that, however, things settle down as Rowling sets up her new universe, plot and social commentary. There was a lot to be said about Rowling creating a segregated society of magic and non-magical beings, of ranting New York bigots, and of fear and paranoia over crises at home and abroad even before recent events. Even so, a lot of those themes are touched on to make us think about real life, but aren't as fully developed as they likely should be.

Rowling and Yates do show some supremely creepy edges with their "New Salemers" society, which is basically an orphanage and a child army of brainwashed and/or abused protesters. Ezra Miller's Credence is chief among them, joining the ranks of mistreated children in the wizarding world like Harry and Voldemort. But it is no accident that Credence is barely teased in the trailers, despite Miller's future stardom to come as the Flash in the DCEU.

Nonetheless, Rowling and Yates often go at a slow, plot-heavy pace in trying to set up everything for this film and the sequels to come, instead of just letting us explore this new world. Since Jacob is a No-Maj who gets an accidental crash course in the magical community, he is an obvious and fitting audience surrogate.

As such, things don't really get going again until Jacob gets a real chance to see what Newt is hiding in his case. In fact, once he literally goes down inside it, it makes for a truly magical sequence as he meets all the creatures and the ecosystems contained within. From there, the momentum builds further as Newt and Jacob start going out to track out the escaped creatures, like the thieving Niffler and a larger beast that tears through Central Park. What's more, there's also a tiny plant creature that helps raise the bar for Baby Groot next summer.

While the creatures do their part to give Fantastic Beasts a jolt, the human element is best represented by Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler. Redmayne is hardly a surprise on that front, sinking into Newt's shy and soft spoken behavior around humans, and lighting up around his creatures and even gradually around two-legged beings as well. On the other hand, Fogler hardly had an encouraging resume coming in, which actually makes him Fantastic Beasts' biggest surprise and revelation for carrying the comedy and heart of the film.

A movie of just Newt and Jacob tracking down the beasts and exploring New York could have been enough for the whole way, although things are ultimately too crowded for that. Unfortunately, Rowling doesn't have as much left over for her female leads, as sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein aren't quite on Hermione's level yet. Katherine Waterston does try to inject some fidgety life into the disgraced but all too caring Tina, but Alison Sudol's best efforts as her more spacey, mind-reading sister are largely wasted on an underdeveloped romance with Jacob.

Once the needs of the plot take center stage again, and once Credence and Colin Farrell's overzealous security chief become more important, Fantastic Beasts goes back to hit or miss territory. Rowling shifts to unsettling creepiness again in the methods of how the U.S’s Magical Congress puts people to death, and Yates certainly runs rampant when the creatures get much bigger and much more dangerous.

However, the chaos and over the top rampage of the final battle often make it hard to make out what’s going on, and dilutes what should be a more emotional climactic showdown. It also builds to a final revelation that is technically ripped off from a past Potter tale, and one that was kind of spoiled weeks ago already.

Fortunately, after that disappointing outcome, Fantastic Beasts does regain some grace and awe in its last 10 minutes, ending things on a more upbeat and heartfelt note. Nonetheless, it does further reflect how the film as a whole goes back and forth from terrific to mediocre.

The Harry Potter films took their time and a couple of movies before they fully fulfilled their promise, so that serves as an encouraging sign for this series. But while the Potter saga had eight films to round into form, the five-film length of Fantastic Beasts leaves it less time to work with. It also benefited from finding more directors and writers over time, whereas Rowling and Yates may be the only ones in charge for this whole franchise.

The stumbles of Fantastic Beasts really don’t suggest that Rowling and Yates should step aside, at least not at this early stage. What they’ve built already suggests there is indeed more worth finding in the wizarding world, and more untold wonder to come. Even so, fully exploiting the wonder, deeper meanings and deeper magic will take more time, but hopefully not too much.

As it stands, it remains a bit hard to see how Fantastic Beasts can truly justify being five films long. The seeds of not one but two important characters for future films are obviously planted, and since the second film is set in Paris, perhaps Newt will be going to different continents and lands each time out to show Rowling’s magic around the world. How it will all come together over four more movies is still unclear even after seeing the first film, but maybe they don’t have to give it all away right now.

The Harry Potter films weren’t all classics, and in fact perhaps only averaged out to being good but not great overall. Nonetheless, like the MCU, every chapter had some value and never failed at being entertaining on some level, even if some were more worthwhile than others. On that level, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them picks up right where the wizarding world left off, in maintaining the same level of consistency.

With some legitimately stunning and chilling sequences, a fair share of scene stealing animals, a few human scene stealers like Redmayne and Fogler and a world that can set itself apart from the Potter universe, this opening chapter does accomplish a fair share of what it needed to do. But at the same time, the hope is that there is more of a fully realized payoff to come later where the parts aren't greater than the whole, without so many slower spots and missed opportunities.

For all that combined, while the movie earns an official 6 rating on the TMN.com scale, it is really on a 6.5 level. Wider audiences of Muggles, No-Majs and more can make their own rating starting on Nov. 18.