Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ***

A worthwhile return to the world of Harry Potter that tells a separate story set in 1920s New York City.

Is it worth $10 Yes

It’s been five years since audiences last got to visit J.K. Rowling’s cinematic Wizarding World, but unlike other properties with a semi-long hiatus, Potter Mania is just as strong as ever thanks to Theme Park expansions, Rowling-written essays posted to the website Pottermore, and the recently released eighth book “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Now comes a whole new franchise set within the same universe, and it begins with “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which is itself based on a small textbook published by Rowling for charity. This new franchise is set half a century before the events of the original Harry Potter films. Written by Rowling (her screenwriting debut) and assembled by much of the same team as the previous films, the film walks a fine line of being familiar yet entirely different, a necessity given that “Fantastic Beasts” is just the first in a five-film deal. Simply retreading old ground would not be worthwhile, but distancing itself from the Potter fan base would also prove to be a major marketing challenge.

The story follows wizard Newt Scamander (played by a one-note Eddie Redmayne) as he travels to America to purchase a unique magical creature. Once there, he bumbles his way into a plot that threatens to blow open the divide between the magical world and that of the No-Maj (the USA version of muggles). Newt unwittingly draws in a No-Maj named Jacob (Dan Fogler), who wants to open a bakery, and a duo of witch sisters (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) into his mess as he searches New York for his lost creatures.

Where the film triumphs is that it doesn’t force connections to the “Harry Potter” films but allows connections to be made naturally. The story is entirely new and incredibly different than the takes-place-over-the-course-of-a-year format that fans are familiar with. The problem with this is that it allows the film to meander in places. Much time is spent on creatures simply doing what they do. These segments establish that Newt loves his creatures but do not further the plot.

In fact, at times it feels that there are two distinct movies happening at once. One that is akin to going to a zoo and observing creatures and one that is more sinister and story-based. These two pieces combine somewhat sloppily and cause sudden tonal shifts that seem slightly out of place. While many of the later Potter films were dark stories, they often included humor spread throughout that helped break the tension. “Fantastic Beasts” attempts to do the same less successfully, almost unsure if it wants to be a light-hearted fantasy-comedy or a dark end-of-days epic.

Visually, the film is mostly stunning. The scope of 1920s New York and the wizarding community hidden within are well-suited to the IMAX format, however the poorly rendered creatures break the visual enjoyment too often. An over-reliance on CGI hurts the film in that it makes the divide between the live-action actors and animated creatures too great to seamlessly integrate them into the real world. This is a shame given the successful incorporation of magical creatures in the films that came out half a decade ago.

The characters are also fairly flat considering how well-developed even supporting characters were in the original films. This can possibly be attributed to the fact that the original films were preceded by over 4000 pages of details while this new five-film franchise is based on one single book that is just over 100 pages. That is not a lot of source material, so time would need to be taken to develop the characters to something other than one-note players with hidden pasts. It is clear the filmmakers are relying on the follow-up films to more fully develop Newt, Jacob, and the Goldstein sisters. This is a format that works well for a Netflix-type release schedule where all parts are released simultaneously, but for movies that are released at least two years apart, it is a bit of a ploy to keep audiences invested in the follow-up films just to learn more about why the two-dimensional characters are the way they are. That said, the cast plays their parts incredibly well. Fogler is a hoot as the bumbling No-Maj and Colin Farrell brings a mysterious intensity to his antagonist that is riveting to watch. Waterson likewise plays Tina with an air of sad mystery.

Overall, the film was an enjoyable return to the wizarding world. It serves as a good launching point for new viewers with its new storyline and characters and an enticing treat for existing fans who will comb through the film looking for any connections to the stories they already know (there are plenty). That said, the next film will need to delve deeper into the characters and find a way to make the fantastic creatures relevant to the plot in order to justify drawing the thin storyline into five movies. It successfully plants the seeds for the new franchise but somewhat struggles as a standalone film. Ultimately, though, there is enough here, including the strong performances and connective tissue, to warrant a trip back to the wizarding world.

Josh Walbert is an entertainment guru with a passion for film and television. He lives south of Orlando, FL, with his girlfriend, and relatively extensive DVD/Blu-Ray collection.

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