Did Harry Potter go away long enough to need a revival? The Pottermore website and theme parks aside, it has been over nine years since the final novel (though only five years since the most recent film). But as J.K. Rowling explores other creative endeavors (and the original fans of the series gain more disposable income as adults), we have gotten a sequel play in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and this prequel film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Set in 1920s in New York City, it extends the existing mythos in interesting ways. Like any prequel, it attempts to walk the line between expanding the universe and tying into pre-existing backstory. This entry brings enough newness, but stumbles when it attempts to set up plot for future films. Traveling from his native Britain to America for the first time is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” working on a book about how to care for and protect magical creatures. Through Newt’s eyes, we are introduced to the differences between magic in the country of Hogwarts and the United States. Rather than a Ministry, the US is governed by the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA), which Scamander promptly runs afoul of by not wiping the memory of Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a Muggle (called a No-Maj in the USA) who witnesses him performing magic. He is brought in by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a skilled witch but unlucky government employee. More creatures escape from Newt's enchanted briefcase, and he must retrieve them before they hurt someone, expose magic to the No-Majs, or are caught and killed by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) the Director of Magical Security for MACUSA. Meanwhile, a mysterious force or creature is lashing out around the city, and the New Salem Philanthropic Society (The Second-Salemers) is trying to warn No-Majs about wizards and witches living among them, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her son Creedence (Ezra Miller).
Fantastic Beasts is an extremely ambitious movie. While it is easy to assume much of the set up will be leveraged by subsequent films, most of it happens in service to the story of this film. Actually, stories. The weaving together of multiple plot lines is the film's biggest shortcoming. There are at least three major stories running through the film. One about Newt Scamander, one about Percival Graves, and one about the Second Salemers, with a subplot relating to Gellert Grindelwald (a name that will be familiar to Potterheads). Sadly, Rowling and director David Yates (also director of the final four Harry Potter films) are never able to weave the themes and plot of these disparate storylines into a more satisfying whole. There's nothing lacking about any of the individual storylines, but there is a lack of elegance in their resolution that isn't up to the high bar set by Rowlings' previous efforts.
And without the structure of the school year and the relative safety of Hogwarts, the film feels looser than the previous films. There's not really a ticking clock until the end, and it lacks the regular cadence of classwork, teen angst, and holidays to move the story forward. This entire film seems to take place over the course of a couple of days, making it feel even more like a whirlwind.
Scamander is the biggest liability here, since despite being the main character, he is a rather passive protagonist. Sure, there is a lot to be gained by having him serendipitously pulled into situations, but he spends most of the film tracking down the beasts he accidentally released. You don’t get credit for cleaning up your own messes. He doesn't get called on by MACUSA for assistance with the strange happenings around the city, despite his skills matching their needs perfectly. Redmayne’s performance is nothing short of delightful, and he’s the best part of the film. He is able to accentuate what makes Scamander different not only from Harry, but also Hermione, and Ron, which helps separate Fantastic Beasts from the original series.
Redmayne’s performance is best when he is paired with Don Fogler. Fantastic Beasts breaks new ground in showing Muggles/No-Maj characters as being actual people rather than just oblivious morons or cartoon monsters. While that approach makes sense for a story told from a child’s perspective, the characters in this film are all adults, so even though the concept of this divide is familiar to fans, the perspective here is fresh. There is nothing remarkable or special about Kowalski as a person, but the growing friendship between him and Newt provide the most charming and also heartwarming scenes in the entire film.
While it is appreciated that much of the cast are relative unknowns when it comes to blockbuster films, it has never been in more stark relief how blessed the Harry Potter films are by having an all-star cast of British thespians. The whimsical dialogue, ridiculous spell casting, and emoting in a fantasy film is truly lent gravitas with actors such as Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Brendan Gleeson, Emma Thompson, and others populating the universe. Above all, that is the magic of the Harry Potter franchise. And while there aren't any bad performances in Fantastic Beasts, only Redmayne and Farrell are up to the task in terms of screen presence.
The themes of the film tread familiar ground for the franchise, with unfeeling bureaucrats hindering the efforts of our heroes in service to a short-sighted greater good. But with all adult characters, it is easy to see this film appealing to the original generation of fans, now adults themselves. The original works have plenty of dark elements to them, but this puts a bigger spotlight on those themes, especially since the moral choices don't appear to be as black and white at the original series. One scene in particular is delightfully creepy and has even more twisted implications.
The choice to set the film in America is interesting, but like Scamander, it doesn't feel intrinsic to this story. Despite some Jazz Age references, there's only a few details that would need to be changed for this to have been set in London. The particular details of Wizarding Society in America seem to be very different from England. We are told that wizards and witches in America are not allowed contact with No-Majs, but in New York, they all seem to live among them. There's no Manhattan version of Diagon Alley, that kind of hidden world just beyond our own that makes Rowling's creation so enticing to so many. It's easy to understand the impulse to give this a different feel, but the particular kind of contrast results in a shallower experience.
Much of this likely sounds like nitpicks from the perspective of someone immersed in the franchise, but I think these are all important things to capture. This project is fascinating from a creative perspective, and while this first film falls short of the best Harry Potter films, the ambition here makes it well worth it a watch. The film is entertaining and charming despite its shortcomings.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in Philly theaters today.