Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Brothers, PG-13)

Despite some amazing special effects, Fantastic Beasts remains inert and uninvolving.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first film spinoff from the Harry Potter Universe, has a tough act to follow. The HPU ranks second only to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in terms of box office receipts, and the Potter films have also enjoyed broad critical acclaim. Based not on a novel but a short “textbook” written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts does have one advantage over the previous HPU films—since the story is almost entirely new, literal-minded fans of the books can’t gripe about how their favorite bits have been changed or left out of the film.

Fantastic Beasts opens in 1926, with the current state of the magical world established via an old-style newspaper montage (one of many nods to the Potter films). British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with a briefcase full of magical creatures that he smuggles through customs courtesy of a muggle-safe latch. Of course, some of the beasts escape courtesy of Newt’s absent-mindedness and his chance encounter with non-Mag (the American equivalent of muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt and Jacob quickly find themselves in hot water but are rescued by disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who brings them back to the apartment she shares with her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). The Goldstein sisters, although both magical, are a study in contrasts: Tina is all brains and seriousness, Queenie all heart and sex appeal, and the latter quickly takes a shine to Jacob (despite the fact that relationships between magical and non-magical folk are forbidden in America).

Newt picked an interesting time to visit America. The magical community is under attack by the New Salem Society, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is believed to be behind a number of destructive events in the city. Unfortunately, Mary Lou is presented as nothing more than a collection of stereotypes, and we don’t learn much at all about the children who assist her in her anti-magic crusade. These include Credence (Ezra Miller), whose dominant characteristic is a really bad haircut and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), who is clearly being set up for a more important role in the sequels (four have been promised).

Despite some amazing special effects, Fantastic Beasts remains inert and uninvolving. Rowling’s particular brand of magic may not thrive in a real-world setting, and the film version of Hogwarts was both more real and more enchanting than the oddly sterile New York City of Fantastic Beasts. The choice of actors and acting styles also works against the film—magic performed with naturalistic acting just seems silly, and while there are fine actors in this cast, they don’t come near the all-star quality of the Potter films, which offered among its many delights the use of distinguished actors in small roles. There’s also an odd sleepwalking quality to many of the performances, as if they weren’t allowed enough takes to really get into character, that makes it difficult to engage with the story.

The Fantastic Beasts team includes many who also worked on the Potter films, including director David Yates, producer David Heyman, editor Mark Day, casting director Fiona Weir, production designer Stuart Craig, and, of course, author J. K. Rowling, making her debut as a screenwriter. Despite the continuity of talent, however, Fantastic Beasts feels more like an entry in the MCU than an organic extension of the Potterverse. It also shares with some MCU films the characteristics of a film more concerned with setting up a franchise than in being satisfying in and of itself, with sketchily-drawn characters, choppy editing, and flashy special effects that would be even better if they took place in a world populated by people we care about. But not to worry—like the MCU, Fantastic Beasts has a built-in audience, thus is pretty much critic-proof. I just hope that after all the groundwork that has been laid in this film, the sequels will be more human and more magical. | Sarah Boslaugh

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