Potterheads rejoice: Five years after Deathly Hallows Part 2 hit theatres, the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling roars back to life with spinoff series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Yes, Warner Bros. only let this franchise rest for five years before bringing it back. Yes, they announced five new movies before the first one even came out. Warner Bros. needs to slow its roll considerably, but hey, it’s not like they’ve had a ton of luck with franchise-building lately. Gotta work with what you have.
Where was I?
If you’re already a fan of the Harry Potter universe—either an obsessive, trawl-through-AO3-looking-for-fic-and-has-opinions-about-Sirius-Black’s-sexuality fan, or a more casual “sweet, wands and moving paintings” type—there’s a lot for you to enjoy in the lively, fun Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which transplants the franchise from 21st century Britain to 1920s New York.
If you couldn’t give a flying chocolate frog about Potter and its ilk… eh. There’s not a ton for you here. Doctor Strange is pretty good. Go see that instead.
Taking over the mantle of franchise Grand Poobah from the Boy Wizard himself is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a “magizoologist” (and Hufflepuff, aka the best house) who ends his world tour studying magical creatures with a stop in NYC. Pretty much right away, he stumbles into quite a delicate political situation: In America, unlike in the UK, it’s verboten for wizards to have any contact with non-wizards (here referred to as “No-Majes,” which is stupid), none of whom can have any ideas wizards exist. But two extremist factions threaten this fragile balance: One, led by Gellert Grindelwald, want wizards to rise up and rule over humanity, while the other, a fringe No-Maj group called the “New Salemers,” are determined to expose and persecute those with magic.
And in barges Newt with a case full of magical creatures that he accidentally lets escape. Like a dipshit.
Luckily, Newt quickly falls in with some new companions who can help him get the creatures back. First comes Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a salt o’ the Earth No-Maj who just wants to start a bakery, God dammit. Next are wizard sisters Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), the former a no-nonsense yet somewhat awkward ex-Auror, the latter a breathy-voiced flapper/Betty Boop/proto-Marilyn Monroe type.
If you, like me, looked at the Fantastic Beasts trailers and thought “Wow, there doesn’t seem like much of a plot here. It just looks like Eddie Redmayne running around New York chasing magical animals”…….. yyyyyup. The reason that there wasn’t much of a story teased at in the marketing is that there isn’t much of a story here! It basically is Newt & co. looking for the lost Fantastic Beasts, interspersed with bits and bobs of a more substantial story that feels like nothing so much as set-up for the next four movies. A key component of the latter is Credence (Ezra Miller), foster son of New Salemer leader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). No spoilers, but I will say that fandom is going to be on this kid like white on rice. A tortured, morally ambiguous emo muffin, Credence is Loki multiplied by Snape, with some Kylo Ren thrown in for the weird hair factor.
There are scenes he has with Colin Farrell, playing the Director of Magical Security, where I swear to fuck it looks like Fantastic Beasts is hinting at some sort of sexually sordid BDSM relationship. The ground positively shakes with the approaching stampede of hundreds upon hundreds of really, really filthy fanfic that’s going to be written about this character.
Though slapdash in terms of story and fucked in terms of pacing (you’re allowed to do the whole five-ending thing on the last movie, where you have a ton of plot threads to wrap up, not the first, Jesus Christ), Fantastic Beasts is enjoyable enough to offset many of its problems. This film is all about worldbuilding, and screenwriter Rowling and director David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, do it well. Gimme all your info about the international council of wizards, please. Fuck yes, magical speakeasies. The visuals are great, from the clothes to the magical creatures to MACUSA (the American equivalent to the Ministry of Magic) headquarters. There’s even a scene where Eddie Redmayne does a sexy mating dance at a magical rhino/hippo hybrid. I just assumed there wouldn’t be any vaguely implied bestiality here—like the jabroni I am—but oh man, I was completely wrong on that.
And the characters and their dynamics are, for the most part, compelling enough that they hold your interest even when the story falls short. Dan Fogler is a standout. Carmen Ejogo is captivating in her supporting role as the President of the American wizards. Ezra Miller is magnificent. Eddie Redmayne, though, will be a make-or-break for some people—he goes in hard with the Capital-A acting, all tics and weird vocal inflections and gazing at people up through his bangs like he is physically willing himself to be the most adorable thing in the universe. He is not. The most adorable thing in the universe is the Niffler, an escaped creature that loves stealing shiny things. He is the best part of this or any other movie ever made.
But, though enjoyable while you watch it, the more you think about Fantastic Beasts, the less it holds up. It suffers from a serious padding problem, the same that’s begun to plague the Marvel Cinematic Universe more and more as of late. There’s a lot here that’s only here as setup for future franchise installments, not because they add anything of substance to this movie. See: A subplot involving a publishing magnate (Jon Voight) and his two sons, a golden child Senator (Josh Cowdery) and a perma-fuckup with something to prove (Ronan Raftery). It’s clear that they’ll be relevant to the Wizard/No-Maj showdown that’s looming on the horizon, but you could axe them from this film entirely and it would hardly make a difference.
Put simply, there’s not a lot of here here, and it makes me worried for the future of the franchise. You can rely on worldbuilding in the first movie, when everything is still fresh. But if you’re going to sustain a franchise for five. freaking. movies, then you need a big, epic story. I don’t see much evidence that Warner Bros. knows what it’s doing in that regard. Sure, you can tell me they have the story elements on lockdown, and we won’t be looking at a sprawling, diminishing returns-beset mess like the Hobbit trilogy, a series felled by the sort of half-baked story stretching and padding that Fantastic Beasts is in danger of falling prey to. You can tell me that… but I’m preeeetty sure I watched 20 minutes of Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler rummaging through a suitcase. It’s better than it sounds. But still.