Among the most successful films in blockbuster history, the Harry Potter franchise grossed nearly 2.5 billion dollars across the 8 films. So it was inevitable that the well would be revisited eventually and five years after the release of the previous film, author J.K. Rowling has answered that call with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While this latest entry in the series doesn’t manage to fully recapture the magic of its forebearers, it remains a solid if occasionally inconsistent spinoff.
A prequel at heart, the film is set in 1926 New York, following British magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he conducts research for a textbook on the beasts of the wizarding world. However, things quickly get out of hand, several of the magical creatures kept inside Scamander’s enchanted briefcase escaping into the city, forcing Newt to roam the city and capture the animals before they wreak too much havoc. Joining him on his quest are Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), muggle baker and WW1 veteran (there’s a brilliant piece of dialogue between Newt and him bonding over their time at the front), disgraced former auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a witch capable of reading minds.
On the other side of the tale is respected auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the agent assigned by MACUSA (the magical authority of the US) to arrest Scamander. There’s much more to Graves however, a subplot involving him and a deeply troubled boy from a magic-hating family (Ezra Miller) growing more and more prevalent as the film goes on.
Unfortunately, these two halves of the plot don’t always mesh, causing constant, abrupt shifts in tone, jumping from lighthearted beast sequences with Newt and Co. to overwhelmingly dreary scenes of Miller being tortured at the hands of his deranged mother (Samantha Morton). The second act in particular feels less like a cohesive section and more like a jumble of scenes from two wildly different films. That’s not to say that neither half works on its own though, the beast hunt proving to be an endlessly entertaining romp and Graves’ story providing some thought provoking commentary on societal repression.
This problem is somewhat alleviated by the film’s terrific cast, each performer perfectly suited to their role. Redmayne commands the screen as Newt, expertly capturing the awkward passion of the character while also imbuing him with more than a few subtle nuances that hint at things to come. However, the standouts are undoubtedly Farrell and Fogler. As the film’s de facto antagonist, Farrell finally manages to combine the movie star persona he’s brought to countless blockbusters with the richness of his work in such independent films as this year’s The Lobster or 2007’s In Bruges. Fogler on the other hand, provides the brunt of Fantastic Beasts’ comic relief and delivers, his hilarious yet honest reaction to discovering magic making him the perfect vessel for the audience.
Despite the rare spotty use of green screen, the film is also beautifully produced. From 3 time Academy Award-winner Colleen Atwood’s impeccable costume design to Stuart Craig’s gorgeous sets, Fantastic Beasts is a near-perfect realization of 1920s New York, particularly in a later scene involving a speakeasy run by a goblin gangster (voiced by Ron Perlman). This can sadly be difficult to notice at times, however, due to David Yates’ (Potters 5-8) disappointingly bland, static direction that leaves scenes feeling oddly empty despite their exquisite surroundings.
Although Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sometimes fails to feel like a cohesive product and often lacks the directorial bravery of previous films in the series, it does succeed in crafting a new side of the wizarding world worth exploring.