Welcome back to the wizarding world of Harry Potter – sort of. As the twinkling tones of John Williams’s original score quickly give way to James Newton Howard’s new creation at the beginning of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this new franchise exists to play off of your imagination captivated by Harry Potter for spin off thrills. The stakes are never nearly as high, nor the engagement with character or world-building – but Beasts is fun all the same.
Set in New York City well before Voldemort’s reign, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and his suitcase full of magical creatures arrive to a very politically different world than his British homeland. The wizard and muggle (or American: no-maj) relationship is far more divided, making for a more fraught and underground magical realm. As darker forces take root, prepare for the allegorical as Scamander plays Rowling Pokemon. The beasts brought to life in playful and colorful CGI may be the most fantastic element.
Beasts borrows on our goodwill for the original Harry Potter legacy, but will have to do considerable work on the inevitable sequel to stand on its own as more than an appendage. While the film is quite fun in many sequences, it never shakes that it is justifying its own existence. It is also somewhat difficult to not compare it directly to what worked for the Potter universe in novel and film formats, a bar that it never more than adequately approaches. Take Scamander for example: our youthful original leads may have had a full series in which to develop, but Rowling imbued them with defining characteristics from the jump. Scamander is the least fulfilling aspect of this new adventure, so empty that it leaves endless room for Redmayne to the void with awkward mannerisms and tics.
The host of new characters is filled out by a charming ensemble, even as it includes some head-scratching inclusions like Jon Voight and Samantha Morton. Katherine Waterston, a surprisingly enjoyable Dan Fogler, and Alison Sudol each delight on a lower register, building the kind of chemistry we’ll be happy to revisit in short order. By now you’ve heard that Johnny Depp pops in as legendary Grindelwald, and yes it feels like just a stunt to put him in another off-kilter look.
But Grindelwald’s presence and the subtle namedrops throughout the film serve more than to pique audience interest for tying the separate Rowling narratives together. It’s clear there will be closer ties built between the two, but even more thankfully that we’re building to a larger battle to fill the history books of this magical world. The execution of this is more successful than the umpteen franchises we’ve seen in recent years. The promise of an absorbing saga and not another cash grab at endless sequels is achieved here not through those dropped details familiar to fans, but through building tantalizing dread and intrigue.
These Beasts may be more Acceptable than Fantastic, but there is hope for where the series could improve. With our current unsteady political landscape across the globe, one wonders how Rowling will continue to develop the kind of allegory she has always favored. If only such beasts could also be caught in a suitcase to prevent their havoc.