Movie review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ prequel simultaneously underwhelms and amazes

Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a shy, soft-spoken and endearing writer, wizard and magizoologist in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an intriguing and refreshing attempt to expand J.K. Rowling’s beloved mythology a mere five years after the heroic conclusion of the “Harry Potter” series.

Set in 1926, approximately 64 years prior to the existence of Harry Potter, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” based on J.K. Rowling’s book of the same name, focuses on an aspect of this world we’ve never seen — in New York City. Magic, wizards and muggles — a non-magical human, unremarkably called “No-Maj’s” here — and everything you’ve ever loved about the Wizarding World returns. And for the first time in the Potter cinematic universe, the screenplay was written by the mastermind herself, J.K. Rowling.

Rowling’s dedication, and level of detail showcased here is astonishing, but even as the first part of a five movie series, she bit off a little more than we could chew in a little more than 2 hours. The comprehensiveness of this world is remarkable and truly magical, but “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” seems more infatuated with the kind of magical world we’re exploring than creating an overarching story. Director David Yates, who’s directed the last four “Harry Potter” entries, is a mostly unremarkable component that succeeds in making the combining franchises stick together, visually and otherwise.

Before the book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” is ever reference material for the Potter boy, Newt Scamander takes a pit stop in New York City, 64 years earlier, touting his magical briefcase, which holds its own entire magical world with fantastic beasts, on his way to Arizona. Scamander’s working on his book, and studying the beasts, which are misunderstood, abused and endangered in the world — even banned in America. After some hokey, playful setpieces, in which some fantastic beasts escape his brief cases and wreak havoc on New York City, we learn about a wizard’s place in America, and the laws set by their own separate government that prohibit them from using magic.

In one of the earliest scenes, Newt chases a creature who escaped and runs into a Jacob Kowalski, remarkably played by Dan Fogler. Kowalski is a typical, down on his luck, aspiring baker who gets swept up in the wizarding world when he mixes up briefcases with Newt. His first journey into Newt’s briefcase, where he witnesses first hand the wonder fantastic beasts hold, and the chemistry between him and Queenie, a Legimillimen (a mind-reader), are some of the films major highlights.

Bubbling under the surface, a cultish anti-witch orphanage adds some undeveloped menace to the picture, but the results are less than satisfying and seem to bear little significance to the future of our world.

There’s also an interesting aspect to the inner-workings of its separate government, which arrests Newt for being an unregistered wizard in America. There’s plenty of material in “Fantastic Beasts” that could draw serious emotional stakes, but it never really comes close to dampening its unbridled optimism and infectiousness.

In the end. as efficiently as Rollins and Yates bring us back into the wizarding world, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” can’t seem to overcome the burden of its own destiny.

It succeeds in most arenas  —  from its uncanny ability to make an already established world feel fresh and new; its wonderful visual effects and designs; its remarkable craftsmanship; and its fantastic performances — but it lacks the dramatic weight to get you yearning for more. And with five more of these on the way, a little more conflict would’ve gone a long way. For major “Potter” fans, there’s no concern. “Fantastic Beasts”  might lack some emotional weight, but it’s a pretty wonderful world to be in.