J.K. Rowling herself wrote the script for this, the first of supposedly five new movies taking place in the Harry Potter ‘verse. It is a spin-off prequel, using a book mentioned in the original movies – and in the books, of course – as the hook. Fantastic beast enthusiast Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) heads to New York, where trouble ensues as some of the beasts he brought with him escape out into the urban jungle. He teams up with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle – or ‘no-maj’, meaning non-wizard – who has baking ambitions and with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted Auror – evil wizard hunter. They strive to get his beasts back into his suitcase, which has Tardis-like properties. Meanwhile, people are getting mauled in what seems like animal attacks. Are Newt’s escapees to blame?
Fantastic Beasts can’t quite capture the feel of the original Harry Potter movies. A new mostly-adult cast in a world we are already somewhat familiar with, doesn’t bring the same sense of wonder. The movie does extend that world by showing us the American perspective on wizardry and by placing events further into the past (1926). And it spends some time setting up plot-points for what may be more meaty future installments. Oddly, the chasing down of the beasts which takes up a lot of the movie’s time, doesn’t seem to be where the important events are happening. The scenes are entertaining enough to be sure, but the focus of the film seems off.
Scamander is an interesting character. He feels more at ease with animals than with people and he is awkward and inward. The pairing with the much more expressive Jacob works well and Tina completes the main trio as a foil and potential love interest. It seems Rowling likes her heroes to come in threes. It is distracting that another character shares a lot of Scamander’s mannerisms, meaning the impoverished and abused Credence Barebone, who also spends a lot of time avoiding eye contact and staring at the floor. I won’t get into his background, but his last name is a bit on-the-nose. Rowling has a knack for descriptive names, as Newt Scamander already indicated.
To its credit, while Fantastic Beasts clearly leaves the door wide open for the next movies, it does neatly wrap up the emotional arcs of its leads. Other than nailing down the Bad Guy for future installments, it still has plenty of room to maneuver and opportunity to head into directions new.