The first spin-off movie of the Harry Potter franchise is here, whisking audiences away from the stuffy halls of modern-day Hogwarts and into crowded streets of 1920s New York City. Though establishing an entirely new realm in the wizarding universe, all the familiar elements are here: Wizards still hide their magic in shadows, using a secret organization to keep their kind in check. Elves can be spotted in wizard sanctuaries, either polishing wands or serving drinks. Wands still have the same old black magic of shooting lightning and making repairs.
Although it’s been a few years since director David Yates helmed the last Potter movie, which came out in 2011, he certainly hasn’t lost his touch. J. K. Rowling, however, is treading in new territory with this being her first screenplay. And though she still has some of that old magic intact, she stumbles into personally bringing her expanding magical world to the big screen.
Protagonist Newt Scamander, played with a quiet shyness by Eddie Redmayne, arrives in New York to seek some magical supplies. During his stay, however, his magic suitcase opens and unleashes a slew of strange creatures upon the city. His suitcase apparently comes with a muggle (or no-maj) safety switch to convert the suitcase into an average interior to avoid customs, which made me question why he didn’t have this engaged while carrying it around New York with such flimsy locks. But there I go questioning the logic of the Harry Potter world, a dangerous mistake if one hopes to enjoy any of its dizzying splendor.
Naturally, Newt’s bag must burst forth to reveal all the CGI creatures a $180 million budget can buy. Initially bound within his TARDIS of a suitcase, housing a sanctuary of various climates, the fantastic beasts are worthy of the title’s acclaim. There are lions with pufferfish throats, moles that can steal hundreds of coins, twigs that can pick locks, and snake-birds that can change shape.
Newt’s shopping trip to New York quickly turns into a Pokémon quest of dashing around the city and capturing the escaped beasts. One of them attacks hapless muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a portly gentlemen down on his luck who is brought along for the ride and acts as a stand-in for the audience. As everyone else remains relatively calm and collected with all the magic going on, Jacob gets to delight in its terror and awe. He’s a far more admirable character than Newt, who spends most of the movie refusing to make eye contact or have an emotional reaction to anything, like the Mad Max vessel of the Potter world. Or it could be the result of Redmayne’s one-trick acting.
That would be enough for a great picture right there, having Newt and Jacob become buddies amid their adventure of hunting down magical creatures. If only Rowling’s writings were so simple. Wrought with lore, Rowling introduces us to America’s secret society of wizards, the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Since this organization is already busy with other matters, former magic enforcer Tina (Katherine Waterston) takes it upon herself to arrest Newt and bring him in. She has a sister, a telepath by the name of Queenie (Alison Sudol), who flirts with awe-struck Jacob, but there isn’t enough time in the film for their romance to blossom. Or the romance implied for Newt and Tina. Or the buddy aspect of Newt and Jacob. Most of the movie finds itself stopping everything so that Newt can chase a mole around a jewelry store or slip and slide on the ice to capture a rhino-hippo thing. I wanted to see the tender moments of Jacob and Queenie fawning over each other, not Jacob being lovingly licked by a magical rhino-hippo.
To prevent the movie from becoming J. K. Rowling’s Jumanji—which it comes dangerously close to being at times—there’s another plot at play so dark that it appears as almost an entirely different movie in tone. New York has its own magic-hating group, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, devoted to exposing the wickedness of wizards and spreading propaganda of their evil. Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) heads the society, bent on strict punishment and death of wizards. It’s a unique aspect of this universe in how humans regard wizards, but like just about every element of this engrossing atmosphere it’s never fully explored. What begins as an investigation of uncovering a dark wizard ultimately amounts to a CGI particle storm destroying New York City. And if you think that’s a lazy copout, you won’t believe how easily everything is resolved with the rift of humans and wizards.
There’s a lot to like about Fantastic Beasts, but it’s more in the style category than substance. The 1920s world of wizardry holds so much allure, from a Prohibition wizard club that serves literal giggle juice to Newt’s multifaceted creature sanctuary. The designs of the beasts are all top notch, even if they’re mostly second-act distractions and contribute nothing to the rushed finale. Visually, it’s another stunning addition to the Potterverse, which makes it rather disappointing that it felt crowded with too little defined lore and too much creature-capturing filler. That being said, there’s still enough charm and wonder to keep one invested in Fantastic Beasts, perhaps best served with a pint of giggle juice.