The year is 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident, were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
When you thought seven books and eight films are enough (I’ve read six books and I don’t remember the last Potter film I’ve seen), here is another film series based within the Potter universe with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film based on a fake book from another film based on another book. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with wanting to milk more out of this universe as long as it is different enough from the Harry Potter films to not make it feels like a rip off. Because this has not based on any book, it is at least interesting to see where it will go. Unfortunately, it will probably take 2 to 4 films to get there.
The film starts off in 1926 with a wizard named Newt Scamander (Redmayne) landing in New York with his briefcase full of magical creatures. Of course things don’t go as expected for him as a a run-in with an American No-Maj/Muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) leads to his case opening and several of his magical creatures to escape. Through this journey, we learn about the inner workings of the magical world of the United States and the MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America), led by their president Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo).
The film explores the differences between the wizarding worlds of England and the United States through interactions between Scamander and a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). She along with her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Kowalski team up with Newt to try and retrieve his missing creatures. The creatures themselves were the best part of the film (and would have probably been better in 3D and/or IMAX). The ones we got to see showed great inventiveness and personality but it would have been nice to see more (and we eventually will) as the only real interactions we got to see were between Kowalski and the other main characters.
Because the world already possesses magic, the film gives us the perspective of a non-magic character in Kowalski. His reactions to what he was seeing were very relatable as they were a combination of both surprise and shock. He simply kept insisting that it was all a dream but the overwhelming evidence came to prove otherwise. The contrast between him and the other characters early on made him fun to watch. As they began to know each other, that gap began to narrow.
The reason for the urgency in capturing Newt’s creatures was that they happened to escape at the same time as a mysterious dark force was ravaging New York. Not knowing the true cause, the MACUSA suspected one of Newt’s creatures as the culprit. On their case was Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a high-ranking auror and the director of magical security for MACUSA. Graves had other motives as he has tasked a young man named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) to find a young child who he believes is connected to these mysterious occurrences.
This brought us to an orphanage run by a woman named Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who preaches about the existence of witches and other magical people. Mary Lou indoctrinates her children with stories of evil witches, uses them to distribute anti-witch brochures, and whips anyone believing otherwise. Her youngest daughter Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) sings about dead witches while Credence is more isolated and is starting to drift away from her ideology. It is this that Graves taps in to as he promised Credence to rescue him and teach him magic if he were successful with his quest.
The problem with the film is that it spends a lot of time setting up it’s world for its inevitable sequels, that it kind of forgets to develop this film. The film rather looks further with boatloads of exposition. While the quest for recapturing Newt’s magical creatures is compelling, it is barely the focus of the film and ends far too quickly. The other elements that the film tried to set up felt weaker in comparison as they were all underdeveloped, incohesive, and took too long to finally get going. Maybe these will be better in the inevitable sequels but that does not excuse what happened here.
Redmayne was great here as Scamander, portraying his shyness and awkwardness around other people as he was more comfortable with creatures. He was very likable and fun to watch with all the CGI creatures and his chemistry with the others made their relationships more believable. Waterston stands up for herself as Tina and doesn’t let her character take the easy way and instead stays out of the way of the others. Fogler plays Kowalski, the man-child, well with his constant look of amazement often stealing scenes. Farrell was okay as the sort of bad guy but he didn’t have much to do.
Overall, this was still a good first entry in this new series with some good performances but suffers from trying to hard to set up the film universe instead of focusing on this film’s story.