When it was first announced, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them didn’t exactly sound like the greatest idea. After all, there were already eight Harry Potter movies. That’s a pretty good total for any franchise about a world of witchcraft and wizardry. But unfortunately those Potter flicks made way too much money for Warner Brothers to leave them alone. They wanted more and convinced J.K. Rowling to deliver. So now we have not just a new movie set in the world of Harry Potter but a spin-off that promises to be merely the first of five additional prequel movies in an entirely new franchise. It should be a product of cold commercial calculation that causes irritation for merely existing. Thankfully, it’s actually a pretty delightful blockbuster that sets the table for a series that should be worth watching. Though not without its problems, this is a crass commercial product that makes crass commercialism look good.
The flick shifts continents and time periods, plopping audiences into 1920s New York where factions of witches and muggles (sorry, no majs. The terminology is different round these parts) is reaching an uncomfortable intensity. For the most part the wizarding world exists in secret but some (like Samantha Morton’s nasty witch hater) don’t take too kindly to magic folk and make those opinions rather vocal. Into this testy world plops Eddie Redmayne, a bookish n’ awkward British wizard obsessed with monsters. He keeps them all in a magic trunk, which unfortunately ends up opened in a confusion involving Dan Fogler’s no maj and unleashes some beastlies into New York. Soon he ends up seeking a steely witch played by Katherine Waterston and her sister Alison Sudol help in the hunt to find them, giving viewers a gang of magical misfits to follow in a weirdo jazz age Manhattan infused with magic.
This is J.K. Rowling’s first original screenplay and she very much feels like the novelist of this new world. The film is mostly world building with the plot threads of this episode being pretty inconsequential. She seems more interested in developing characters, environments, and mythology than narrative. And fair enough, she’s pretty good at that. While the central foursome are certainly endearing enough to tag along with (especially Redmayne whose gawky n’ goofy charms here are as impressive as the countless effects), the best characters emerge from the edges. Samantha Morton’s creepy witch hater and her abused son played by Ezra Miller have oodles of villainy potential, Colin Farrell hunts around well as a witch detective, and there’s a certain star reveal that will get some groans from overexposure, but it should pay off well later on.
The mixture of the whimsical comedy bumblings in the forefront of the movie with the dark drama creeping in around the edges to lay track for sequels isn’t always smooth. At times you’ll wonder where this whole thing is going and why we even want to get there. Or maybe not. Fortunately, the movie is just beautifully constructed enough to pave over the narrative gaps with pure spectacle. Given the billions brought in by Potter, the gang clearly had a near limitless budget to bring this prequel to life and it sure looks like it. There are detailed costumes, gorgeous sets, and CGI-enhanced magic as far as the eye can see. It’s all damn pretty. Directing duties fell into the capable hands of David Yates, who directed the final (and biggest) four Potter flicks. So he slips back into this world like a pair of old slippers and keeps a sense of continuity.
David Yates delivers another big, sweeping, rousing trip to Rowling-land, but it’s undeniable that it feels perhaps a little too same-y to where this series has been before. I suppose that’s the safest way to go with this spin-off picture. It’s just too bad that no director with personality has been allowed to come in and shake things up since Alfonso Cuaron made easily the best Harry Potter movie oh-so many moons ago. Hopefully someone other than Yates will get a crack at one of the next four of these movies because Rowling’s worlds offer so much room for cinematic imagination and are begging for someone to come in and cut loose. On the plus side, future movies in the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise appear to actually be worth getting excited about, which is a nice surprise. There’s potential here for more than merely brand synergy and hopefully whatever depths are to be found in this spin-off prequel land will be cracked sooner rather than later.