After the Harry Potter franchise ended, Warner Bros started looking for its next big cash-cow. Well, it seems as though they’ve found it. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—based on a textbook Harry Potter read at Hogwarts that author J.K. Rowling later turned into a book under the character pseudonym Newt Scamander—is already lined up be a trilogy. Though Rowling recently announced there will be five movies. FIVE. That’s goddamn bold for a prequel series.
The story follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he visits 1920s New York City with a suitcase filled with fantastic beasts he’s rescued from around the world. Unaware of the strict rules wizards in America have about interacting with non-magical people, Newt bumps into “non-maj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who accidentally releases all of Newt’s creatures and gets caught up in Newt’s adventure. With the help of witches Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt and Jacob set out to recollect the fantastic beasts and stop a powerful magical presence called the Obscurus from exposing the wizarding world in America.
Though that’s only part of the plot. The other part focuses on Gellert Grindelwald infiltrating MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States). If you’re not familiar with Grindelwald (because you didn’t read the Harry Potter series), he was the childhood friend of Albus Dumbledore, and they both dreamed of a world where magical people ruled over Muggles. But Dumbledore eventually ditched that idea while Grindelwald actively pursued it. So we’ll undoubtedly see a head-to-head between Dumbledore and Grindelwald (played by Johnny Depp, who has a cameo in this movie) at some point. Hell, they’re already talking about casting Young Dumbledore.
While the movie overall is breathtaking with its fantastic production design, 1920s fashion, and magical creature CGI work (Seriously, the moment Newt shows Jacob his suitcase zoo had me “I want to go to there”ing), I did find it frustrating that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them felt less like a movie about Newt Scamander and his work with magical creatures and more like a jumping-off point for what’s to come with Grindelwald. The story was bogged down by its own franchise groundwork, doing more to develop characters, settings, and plot points we’ll eventually see rather than working with the material that was right in front of us now.
You can tell that Rowling, who wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is used to having more space to flesh out a story with books because her screenplay is too much setup and not enough flourish. Movies, unlike books, require conciseness and faster pacing, which is why this film felt like it could’ve been capped at 90 minutes (by removing unnecessary subplots) and been better. I’m not criticizing her world-building. That’s vital for a successful, well-developed franchise—especially one with five movies. I’m saying this was a sloppier start than I expected.
When the movie embraces its magic, whether that’s the fantastic beasts or the amazing rebuilding scenes after the climax, that’s when it shines and helps you forget about the not-great storytelling. Also, while all of the actors are excellent in this movie—including Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Ezra Miller (who play roles in the Grindelwald plot and are unsettlingly good)—I feel like the most worthy shout-out goes to Dan Fogler. Jacob is one of the better audience stand-in characters I’ve seen. He adds humor and heart to a role that might have been a throwaway in less capable hands, and I really hope he gets roped into more wizardly adventures.
Good escapism—that’s what Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is. I just hope the filmmakers tighten up the plot in the next four movies. I don’t want another prequel franchise like The Hobbit.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: B+
Listen to my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them on “Pat & JT in the Morning” here (at 29:30).