We live in an era of franchises. Animated films non-withstanding, we cannot have a standalone big budget release any more, it all has to connect to a bigger story. So, five years after the release of the last Harry Potter film, JK Rowling and Warner Brothers decided to bring us back into the Potterverse with a series of films based upon a pamphlet of a book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The first film tells the tale of Newt Scamander, a beast capturing wizard who finds himself in New York City just as some serious shit within the local magic community is going down, threatening to expose the existence of magic users once and for all. He meets up with a No-maj (don’t you dare call them Muggles!) and after a predictable little scene involving the switching of their similar looking suitcases, we are drawn into a world of magic once again.
Surprisingly, the biggest problem with Fantastic Beasts is the flat characters. Eddie Redmayne can’t save Newt, a protagonist so underwritten that he serves merely as exposition and little else. Redmayne tries, but there is only so much one can do with a boring character. The film would have benefited greatly if it started off with a bit of character building for Newt, instead of having us jump straight into the action. Fairing a bit better is Dan Fogler, the muggle (sorry, no-maj doesn’t have the same ring to it) who serves as our eyes and ears as we discover the world of wizards along with him. Of course the fundamental problem is that anyone seeing this film is already pretty well versed in the workings of this world, so it is up to the characters and story to draw us in.
The story has potential, but is bogged down by trying to do a bit too many things, which is in part why the characters feel so thin. The main storyline, which is the best, involves magic related disasters occurring around New York that are being attributed to a dark wizard who is trying to start a war between the humans and wizards. It gets needlessly complicated from there. This is surprising considering the screenplay was written by Rowling herself. And considering how the film ends, I’m not quite sure where they can go from here apart from trotting around the globe capturing beasts and solving whatever problem happens to crop up while doing so. I hope she proves me wrong.
There are moments of magic to be found here though. The inside of Newt’s suitcase is a sight to behold, and the speakeasy is a nice reminder of the world in which the characters inhabit. Maybe it’s the New York setting, but Fantastic Beasts lacks the wonder found in the mainline Harry Potter films. As for the beasts themselves? They are all over the place, ranging from the cute jewel loving platypus thing (hit), to a glowing sexually charged rhino (big miss). But the bits of sparkle can’t save this from becoming just another expensive, average blockbuster. We are getting a few more of these, so let’s hope Rowling et al. can rediscover what made people fall in love with this universe in the first place.