The more time that passes, and the more big budget films that come and go, the clearer it becomes that the eight-film “Harry Potter” series was an extraordinary achievement. The big-screen adaptations of J.K. Rowling’ books never received “Lord of the Rings”-level praise, but the cultural footprint left behind is larger.
That’s why there seems to be more interest in “Potter” prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” than there was for “The Hobbit.” Fans are aching for further wizardry, even if Harry, Ron, Hermione, and company are nowhere to be found.
Everyone else will be pleased by “Fantastic Beasts,” an entertaining, more-than-adequate re-entry into the Potterverse. Even those with a minor interest should be satisfied by this 1920s-set tale set in New York City.
Yet all others are advised to fly elsewhere. The stakes are high only when you know and care about what came later on; if casual references to Hogwarts and Albus Dumbledore don’t pique your interest, don’t see “Fantastic Beasts.” You won’t follow it, and you won’t want to.
All others will find something to enjoy in this film set 70 years before young Harry Potter was battling Lord Voldemort. The main character in “Fantastic Beasts,” Newt Scamander, is referenced in the “Potter” books and films, as is the textbook authored by the fictional character.
That book, of course, is “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Played here by “Theory of Everything” Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, Scamander is a sheepish, brave, kind-hearted wizard who studies and cares for beasts the wizarding community sees as dangerous. (Redmayne is often a bit too sheepish here, really.)
These creatures — some large, some small — reside in his sturdy suitcase. That crucial piece of luggage arrives with Scamander as he enters the U.S. for the first time. Soon after his arrival, he comes upon an anti-witchcraft rally that sets up one of the primary battles in Rowling’s texts, that of wizards versus muggles, or as they are known in America, “no-majs.”
It is here that Newt encounters many of “Beasts”’ central characters — a low-level Magical Congress employee named Tina (Katherine Waterston), affable no-maj Jacob Kowalski (a delightful Dan Fogler), and an anti-witch extremist and her emotionally wounded adopted son (Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller).
A suitcase mix-up means Newt’s beasts are soon on the loose, with Newt, Tina, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Jacob on their trail. Lurking in the background is the mysterious Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), as well as stories of a dark wizard on the loose in Europe, Gellert Grindelwald.
Director David Yates is nothing if not comfortable in this world. He directed the final four “Potter” films, and the last two (“Deathly Hollows” parts one and two) rank among the series’ best. Here, the execution is far less fleet-footed. There are clumsy moments, some wasted characters, a noticeable visual drabness, and way too many effects.
The film’s climactic battle, in particular, is wildly overdone and dull. And the final reveal, while fun thanks to a surprise cameo, is a bit too obvious in its attempt at setting up film No. 2.
Interestingly, the most memorable, most enjoyable scenes are those between the Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie. There is a freshness in these interactions, thanks to the casting of four likable actors. Great casting has always been a key element to the success of the “Potter” films, and that’s certainly true in “Beasts.”
This is all necessary world-building, as it was in the first two “Potter” films. “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” are the weakest of the series, perhaps by necessity; introductions and exposition were vital for what was to come. Similarly, “Fantastic Beasts” is successful in its quest to introduce its new characters, explain the setting, create some loose links to Hogwarts, and set the stage for future entries. Rowling has already promised five (!) sequels.
Comparatively, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” ranks as the weakest “Potter” film, and probably one of the least kid-friendly. But the teenagers who grew up on Rowling’s stories — and the adults who joined them — will adore it, and what comes next should be fascinating. Let the speculation over who should play young Albus Dumbledore begin.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
3 stars (out of four)
Featuring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler
Directors: David Yates
Running Time: 133 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for fantasy action violence
The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards 70 years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.