Set in 1926, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British magizoologist with a TARDIS-like zoo of a suitcase who hopes to publish a guide to help his fellow witches and wizards better understand and protect the magical creatures around them.
Newt’s studies take him to New York City, which is virtually a whole new world within a world: Wizarding America does not harmoniously co-exist with No-Maj (short for “no magic”) America the same way Wizarding Britain does with Muggle Britain. Here, wizards are strictly forbidden from befriending or marrying No-Majes, and they are required to register their wands and carry wand permits at all times. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) fears exposure of their community more than anything, something that Newt learns the hard way.
After a mix-up with a No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally releases several of Newt’s creatures into New York, Newt crosses paths with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror who is having a tough time letting go of her old job. She and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a powerful but good-hearted Legilimens (mind-reader, in HP speak) round out the franchise’s quartet, who are tasked with saving Newt’s creatures in the midst of a larger and darker conflict threatening everyone in New York, wizards and No-Majes alike.
If you can’t tell, Rowling packs as much setup into her screenplays as she does her books, so in that regard, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t disappoint. I can’t go much more into the plot without spoiling it, but fair warning: If you’re expecting a fun romp through Prohibition-era New York as Newt and friends try to catch ’em all, you’re going to be pretty shocked because that’s not what this movie is at all. At times it tries to be, but the bulk of the movie is dedicated to setting up the major conflict of the next four films through the actions of Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Tina’s former Auror boss who, thanks to some ace costume design from Colleen Atwood, is not entirely what he seems.
Also filling out the movie is a whole host of characters I haven’t mentioned yet, some more interesting than others. Carmen Ejogo is Madam Picquery, MACUSA’s president and a somewhat painful reminder that the 1926 Wizarding World seems to be more progressive than the real world is today. Ezra Miller plays Credence Barebone, an important and painfully repressed No-Maj with ties to a fanatical anti-witch group called the Second Salemers. Ron Perlman cameos as Gnarlack, a shady goblin with the most disturbing fingers I’ve ever seen. Jon Voight appears as a No-Maj newspaper mogul who probably should’ve been disappeared from the script entirely because he and his subplot are superfluous at best and completely pointless at worst.
And yes, Johnny Depp does show up as Gellert Grindelwald, the Wizarding World’s answer to Hitler and Albus Dumbledore’s childhood friend-turned-mortal enemy. Don’t even get me started about Depp. He’s terribly miscast here, but Warner Brothers made its bed and now they’re stuck with a guy who, with very little makeup, somehow manages to look worse than Voldemort did when he climbed out of the cauldron at the end of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in all his snake-nosed and forked-tongue glory. Fingers crossed for a recast.
Depp notwithstanding, most of the flaws in Fantastic Beasts come from the screenplay (and some rather weak directing from David Yates, who has never been the best Potter director despite helming half of the films in its universe). There’s a whole lot of info-dumping and not a lot of character development. The various twists and misdirections are fairly predictable, and the set-up for the sequels, while tantalizing, doesn’t help this movie stand on its own merits. And, if the rumors are true, the choice to tell Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s story to its conclusion in 1945 through a very tangential Newt Scamander seems a bit ill-fitting, but I’m willing to give Rowling the benefit of the doubt. Her long-term plotting has always been better than her serialized storytelling; maybe the same will be true here.
Thankfully, however, Fantastic Beasts does exhibit Rowling’s greatest strength as a writer, which is to say that the world-building is amazing. It’s exactly what made me fall in love with Harry Potter in the first place, and she brings it back full force. And just like before, it’s really the small wonders that make this movie magical, like the peaceful Demiguise (an ape-like creature that can make itself invisible) tenderly feeding a lost Occamy baby (a snake-like reptile that can grow and shrink at will) or MACUSA’s version of a Doomsday Clock (which fans will suspect runs very similarly to Mrs. Weasley’s family clock, only on a much larger scale).
Similarly, Rowling incorporates into Fantastic Beasts a good amount of social commentary about American society via the magical community, like the government-enforced segregation between wizards and No-Majes, that mirrors what she did with pureblood culture for British society. It’s interesting to see the United States through the lens of the Harry Potter universe, though it’s a little strange that she uses magical segregation as a substitute for the very real racism and sexism that has been the cultural backbone of this country since even before its founding. She nicely sidesteps those issues in the “Harry Potter” books too, so it’s not a totally new thing.
But, perhaps because I’m American and because I’m 15 years older than I was when the first Harry Potter movie was released, it seems like an even more obvious omission here in “Fantastic Beasts” than it ever did in the books. It’s nice to think that racism and sexism don’t exist in the Wizarding World, but it also sort of makes everything, even the magic, a little less believable.
All in all, many things in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them made me, a lifelong Harry Potter obsessive with perpetual Hermione hair, very happy. Even so, there’s just no way it could ever hope to live up to the original phenomenon of Harry Potter, and as long as you don’t expect it to, you probably won’t be disappointed. Compared to the Potter films, Fantastic Beasts feels like an adaptation of a book that you want to read but can’t because it doesn’t exist, a safe-bet franchise for Warner Brothers that isn’t anything truly special — yet. Here’s hoping the second outing will be a little more solid than the first.