Though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 completed the film rendition of J.K. Rowling’s famed fantasy series in 2009, the release of spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has given fans yet another opportunity to return to the World of Wizardry... Unfortunately, the film lacks the heart of its precursors.
Set 70 years before the Harry Potter series in 1920’s New York, Fantastic Beasts is inspired by a Hogwarts textbook mentioned in the original series; Rowling also wrote the screenplay herself. David Yates, director of the last four Harry Potter movies, also headed Fantastic Beasts— the first installment of a five-part series.
Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, is a British “magizoologist” traveling with a magical suitcase that contains a menagerie of the titular “fantastic beasts.” Slightly bumbling Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with “No-Mag” (the American term for “muggle”) Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, and the beasts escape into the city, thus endangering the wizarding community. Along with ex-Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), they search for the animals but get mixed up with No-Mag Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leader of the Second Salemers—an extremist group whose goal is to expose and exterminate witchcraft, and yet another darker threat.
Eddie Redmayne does a good job portraying the quiet, awkward Newt, but some of the supporting characters are more compelling. Fogler as the sympathetic No-Mag Jacob awed and charmed by the magical beasts is much more endearing. Ezra Miller is convincing as the troubled and abused adoptee of Mary Lou, and Morton is properly chilling as the evil witch-hunter operating from self-righteous fervor. Waterston’s Tina was less absorbing. She came off as breathy and anxious, and alongside the already quiet, nervous Newt, this was just too much. Strong, likeable characters were the strength of the Harry Potter series, but it’s harder to care about Fantastic Beasts’ bland protagonists.
The visuals and special effects are lovely, particularly in Newt’s “all-seasons” menagerie. The Jazz Age setting is fun—especially a scene in which goblins staff a magical speakeasy.
However, it seems as though Fantastic Beasts doesn’t know what kind of movie it’s trying to be. Rowling’s messages of tolerance are heavy handed, and while the animal-laced plot is seemingly meant for a younger audience, the film takes a surprisingly dark turn. The audience is yanked back and forth between a light, comic scene of Newt chasing a Niffler (a small, precious-metal hoarding creature that looks like a lot like a platypus) through a jewelry store and a scene in which we discover that Mary Lou beats her adopted son Creedence regularly. Newt performs a ridiculous mating dance to lure one of his creatures back, and a short time later, a powerful magical force whips through the air, violently killing a several characters. Harry Potter managed to be both humorous and dark, so why can’t Fantastic Beasts make it work?
Perhaps too many comparisons to Harry Potter are unfair, but it’s hard to resist them. There’s no denying that without Harry Potter, there’d be no Fantastic Beasts, so the appeal is mostly for fans. But you don’t need to be a Harry Potter expert to watch the movie and the references are subtle.
For fans longing to revisit Harry Potter’s world, Fantastic Beasts offers a taste of the magical world, but the spin-off misses the mark. Fans may enjoy it, but don’t expect it to rank with the originals.