Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter phenomenon burst onto the scene over a decade ago with J.K. Rowling’s magnificent books (I’ve read them at least twice each), and even more so when the books were adapted into films, grossing nearly $8 billion worldwide. It rocketed actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson to stardom, along with J.K. Rowling, the mind behind the entire universe. Of course the moneymaking was never going to stop with the seven book, eight movie series, and with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, fans of the Harry Potter universe get the chance to return to the wizarding world, but in a different time and place than what they are used to. Not based on a novel by J.K. Rowling, but rather written by J.K. Rowling specifically as a screenplay, Fantastic Beasts is an opportunity for fans to fall in love all over again, and for new fans to catch hold of the phenomenon.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a bumbling British wizard who travels the world discovering magical beasts, learning everything he can about them and how to care for them for research for his book. When his travels take him to New York City, Scamander’s beasts somehow escape his briefcase, causing MaCUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), lead by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror who has fallen out of favor of the president (Carmen Ejogo) and high ranking official Graves (Colin Farrell), to pursue Scamander and his No Maj (American for “muggle”) friend (Dan Fogler) on suspicion that recent suspicious deaths, which threaten the reveal of the magical world, are being caused by Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, when in fact a deeper and even darker kind of magic is at play with notorious outlaw Gellert Grindelwald at large.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has the unique challenge of building off of an already popular franchise, while also retaining almost zero people, places, or things from before. It takes place within a world with which it’s audience is likely very familiar, but there is nothing there to inherently draw people in, no source material, and therefore is faced with the uphill climb of establishing itself as its own franchise, as something that can hold up a trilogy, which has already been announced, on its own. In this respect, I feel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them results in a mixed bag. In some respects, it exceeded my expectations by being both magical and exciting, both virtues the main series has in droves, but in others I struggled to initially connect, such as the story and its characters. For the most part, the film is wildly entertaining, but there are certainly bumps along the way and growing pains even as David Yates, who directed 4 of the original 8 films, commands the world with a knowing touch.

The film begins quite slowly, featuring a set piece meant to introduce us to Scamander, his unique “beasts”, and MaCUSA. It didn’t work for me, mostly because the pacing of the film is so lethargic in the beginning, which is in great contrast to the tense, atmospheric and palpable pacing of the main series. Character introductions follow, which feel more forced than natural, and a wave of seemingly unrelated occurrences thrown at the audience which are clearly going to be related to each other at some point down the line. It’s a film which stumbles a bit out of the gate in terms of establishing itself and its own direction, but I will say that once it gets the first act out of the way, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a great joyride and a great cinematic experience. Rowling and Yates are able to imbue plenty of wonderfully magical elements and scenes. Giggle water is my favorite new magical invention, and the first scene exploring the multitudes of beasts Scamander has discovered is among the most magical in the Harry Potter world.

I fear in terms of story and character development Rowling is leaning much too heavily on the trilogy structure, failing to let Fantastic Beasts stand on its own to establish the characters as full bodied contributors to the story. In all past Harry Potter films, a separate screenwriter has been involved in order to adapt Rowling’s written word. I certainly hope nothing was lost between Rowling’s imagination and her own adaptation, scenes, character traits, etc. which are clear as day to Rowling in her mind, but never found their way to page or screen. I wanted more about each of these characters and their circumstances, but instead was left with just enough to tease my interest in the next two films. Luckily I have bought into this world. Luckily I am intrigued with where the next two films could be going. Luckily there is enough magic and imagination in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them for me to be able to easily recommend it for Harry Potter fans. Luckily I had a great time. As it’s own film, it may be pretty good, but luckily I will eventually have the chance to re-evaluate it against the larger story, and I reserve the right to call Rowling’s next storytelling adventure “great”, as it certainly has that potential.

*** – Very Good

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