With a franchise so beloved as J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter," it's hard to think that there's anything that audiences don't know. After all, the movies were released years after each book and were faithfully adapted for the most part. How could anything be mined out of the series after almost 20 years? Well, there's director David Yates' Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: a prequel series of sorts that follows wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he travels to America and discovers that the wizarding world is in more peril than expected. What follows is the first of many films (all announced to be directed by Yates) meant to fill in the gaps of the pre-Potter landscape. While the first entry doesn't feel obvious in doing this, it definitely has fun introducing the new world.
What may be most interesting about Fantastic Beasts is that its source material isn't actually a narrative prose. In fact, Rowling wrote the novelty book for charity, which amounts to a fictional dictionary of beasts from Potter's world. While the story isn't there, it's probably smart to have a copy readily available (and subtitles for that matter) when watching the film. Despite Redmayne's scraggly charm, his one ineffective feature is that he either mumbles key information, or says beast names that would be difficult to understand if spoken slowly by each syllable. It is the one downside to the new franchise, which otherwise has some promising beginnings.
The one thing to enjoy about Scamander is that he's a new type of wizard. He's a bit awkward socially, but is effective in keeping the peace when necessary. As he discovers the slight differences in American magic (for instance, muggles are now no-madge), there's a fun curiosity to everything. Even the presence of no-madge character Kowalski (Dan Fogler) gives the viewers an outsider's perspective to what otherwise feels like an everyday occurrence. As a whole, Yates and the gang have set up the beginning to a new series with promise. Even composer James Newton Howard's additional motifs create a unique feel to something that has been on the big screen for most of the past 15 years.
Even then, the film feels a little too heady to be all-in-all great. While Scamander's beast hunting often leads to the film's best moments, there's still additional stories that service more to set up whatever the sequels will cover. There's the villain (Colin Farrell) and a creepy anti-occult group called Second Salem (featuring a pitch perfect Ezra Miller as the timid Creedence) that add a subtext about humanity that feels all too prescient with America's recent presidential election still serving as a sore subject. These are all fine points that would add weight to a more streamlined story. Instead, it feels at odds with the adventure film that Scamander's first hour establishes. In fact, it becomes problematic when the fun and the preachy come head to head in the third act, causing both to take turns in uneven fashion (the set-up for the sequels doesn't help either).
Then there's the elephant in the room, or more appropriately: the beasts. Are they that fantastic? There are a few with memorable character designs. The film's best moments happen when the film turns into its own version of Pokemon Go with Redmayne having fun trying to capture his beloved creatures. Much like his diction however, most are reduced to background characters or other indecipherable positions throughout the film. Despite being the main draw, it's a tad disappointing how little feels fantastic about these beasts. There's a promising stable that will hopefully be seen in future movies, but the introduction fails to make any lasting impact on casual fans the way that the Norwegian Ridgeback did in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. This may change eventually, but serves as one of the film's greatest downfalls.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them thankfully doesn't feel like cheap filler for an audience longing for more Harry Potter. However, it has yet to find its own legs as well. While it's still enjoyable enough to serve as fun escapism, it needs to do plenty to balance its dark and its light as well as its adventure with its themes. The cast is great and works well together. The universe for the most part has some memorable moments that rival Rowling's other eight movies. The only issue is that it feels a little more lopsided as a whole. It will do, but hopefully this will be like the other films and improve as time goes on.