Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (hereafter Fantastic Beasts) is a part 1 of a film. And it would be the equivalent of a standard action/fantasy television pilot, were it not for the crisp cinematic flourishes and rich atmosphere, courtesy of Harry Potter veteran director David Yates and ace performances from Katherine Waterston and Dan Fogler. Its plot stammers, sometimes visibly struggling to justify its existence when it's not doing the business of setting up events that can only pinky promise to be interesting in future instalments because there will be, when all is said and done, five of these things.
It suffers from a mean bout of identity crisis, too. Fantastic Beasts artlessly alternates between the whimsical hi-jinx of the earlier Potter films (the titular beasts are indeed adorable and do adorable things) and the bleak monotonous drone of the later Potter films (the finale involves a dully murderous sentient black cloud levelling swaths of 1920s New York City. Uh, imaginative, I guess?). Of course. it's a charming and mostly lovely film, at least the surface of it is; how bout the 1920s Wizarding World of New York, huh? And it even threatens to become bittersweetly poignant by its end. But that bittersweet poignancy is then immediately undercut by "Tune in next week! Same Potter time, same Potter channel!" Ugh.
Magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), carrying a suitcase that contains a literal world of magical creatures, arrives by boat to a wintry, 1926 New York City. One of the creatures escapes his suitcase and in his haste to retrieve it he accidentally reveals himself to "No-Maj" (a muggle) aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, highly reminiscent of Chaplin's Tramp, the authentic little fellow). Jacob and Newt then run afoul of disgraced ex-Auror Tina (Aurors are like wizard cops) and her zany sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Together they need to find the wild beasts before they intrude upon the No-Maj community, a community that is already deathly afraid of the existence of magic thanks to the terrorist actions of dark wizard Grindelwald and a troubled child with uncontrollable powers.
An incalculably large part of the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise isn't its mythology but the rich tapestry of complex characters, and their believable evolution from children into young adults. An entire generation – mine – literally grew up alongside Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Fantastic Beasts doesn't have that, and its focus is squarely on the adults who aren't quite so susceptible to the wonder and heavy emotion that comes so easily to children. It's nothing against the film, just something to keep in mind before eagerly rushing into the theatre, hoping to revive that spark.
But creator/screenwriter J.K. Rowling is keenly aware that what also made Harry Potter such a global phenomenon was its love for misfits and outsiders. Fantastic Beasts finds its heart in a new oddball quartet consisting of a Brit in New York (Newt) a No-Maj (Jacob) and an ex-Auror (Tina) and her mind-reading sister (Queenie). Individually, however, they're a little thin. Particularly main character Newt Scamander, who should spend less time searching for magical beasts and more time searching for a coherent personality. Eddie Redmayne is an outstanding actor when given the right material. But he's at a loss here, randomly fluctuating between warm and adorable and off-putting and strange, like a cobbled together frankenstein of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes and one of the kinder Dr. Whos. Tina, Jacob, and Queenie feel quite a bit more consistent and nuanced in their characterisation, but Fantastic Beasts doesn't give them quite enough room to breathe. But as a quartet who embark on all manner of weirdness and some self-discovery? Yep, they're loveable, alright. It's a thoroughly mixed bag of tremendous performances, one bad performance, great moments that's just held together by a competent screenplay that strains to serve too many masters.
Criticisms aside -- and there are a few to be hurled -- it is a joy just to visit the Wizarding World again, even for someone like myself who hasn't seriously revisited the films in years. It's a handsome, cosy, and inviting production, guys. There's something to admire or be charmed by in nearly every frame of the film, some spotty CGI notwithstanding, and that charm is amplified a hundred times through Jacob's innocent perspective. At its best, it's reminiscent of the best Harry Potter films and casts quite a spell. No easy feat for a narrative and concept that is dangerously close to the cynical action of dutifully milking a cow. With some trepidation and concerns, count me in for the next one.