Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written as an original screenplay by author J.K. Rowling, is an expansion of her Harry Potter universe, and a test: Without lovable, adolescent leads Harry, Hermione Grainger and Ron Weasley, or the elaborate narrative backbone provided by Rowling's novels, can the wizarding world continue to interest us? And can these new characters and story — merely the opening salvo in a multifilm series, we’re told — measure up to the epic struggle of Harry and his friends against Lord Voldemort and his minions?
Split decision. The director of Fantastic Beasts is David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, ably steering them through that series' darker turns. (As the audience grew up, so did the prevailing mood of Rowling’s tales, which shifted from fanciful adventures to existential battles against the forces of evil.) Here, Yates picks up partly where he left off: With its gathering sense of gloom and its brooding characters, Fantastic Beasts feels pitched not so much toward kids but to somewhat older viewers, possibly the fans who matured with Harry. While the spectacle is certainly there, and with it a hint of the grandeur of those earlier films, there’s something empty at this movie’s heart. Fantastic Beasts is often lovely to look at, at times even stirring, but there’s little to hold onto, story- or characterwise.
The story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who in the Potter series was the author of a textbook (called, naturally, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) that young Harry read at Hogwarts Academy. (Rowling actually published the textbook, basically a catalog of said magical beasts, in 2001, though this new story apparently has little to do with the book itself.) Arriving in New York City in the 1920s, Newt is a mopey klutz lugging around a suitcase that appears to be filled with exotic creatures. The wizarding community in the States is torn; anti-wizard sentiment is on the rise, and they’re all worried about getting discovered and persecuted by what they call the No-Majs (short for “No Magics,” or what are called “Muggles” in England).
Newt tries to keep a low profile, but when his creatures start escaping from his bottomless suitcase, he winds up entangled with aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a onetime wizarding investigator, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, they try to track down Newt’s runaway beasts, while also steering clear of the Magical Congress of the United States of America and its security forces, led by the ruthless Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
What story exists here is just an excuse on which to hang some effects-fueled standoffs and some chasing and running around — which wouldn’t be such a problem if the characters were in any way interesting or fun. Newt’s awkwardness was presumably meant to be charmingly dorky, but Redmayne plays him with such baroque, quivering preciousness that much of the time he seems physically ill. Tina, meanwhile, seems conceived as a spunky, scrappy character who helps bring Newt out of his shell, but the immensely talented Waterston is too restrained to make the part truly sing. Farrell broods better than most, and his glowering presence brings a welcome menace to the proceedings. But his character also remains, purposefully, an enigma. (There’s a reason for this, and if I told you why I’d have to give away a spoiler. And even though it’s kind of a pretty obvious spoiler, I will resist the temptation.) Watching these characters, I was reminded in a bad way of the charisma of Rowling’s original trio of young student wizards. These ones — older, more troubled — come off not so much as complex but as wan and dry.
Yet there is wonder in this movie. Yates is now an old hand at this stuff, and he knows how to dazzle: Suitcases open onto magic toolsheds that open onto Monument Valley vistas and vast deserts. The brick-and-steel sturdiness of New York in the 1920s meets the eye-popping spectacle of the Harry Potter universe. A final scene in which the city, skyscrapers and all, is rebuilt by magic following the destruction of a catastrophic battle legitimately gave me goose bumps. In moments like that, you’re reminded of what this project might have been — and perhaps could be still, in the continuing series that Rowling has promised her fans, and that Warner Bros. is banking on.