The eight Harry Potter films, which stretched out over nearly a decade, had a fantastic group of actors at its center. We watched as Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson grew up to deliver skilled, subtle, and fascinating performances—who could have known their versatility when they were cast at the age of ten? For all the lunacy and whimsy of the Storied British Actors who surrounded these talented youths in all eight films, it was the kids who kept us all locked into focus. We cared about these strong, likeable characters, and their story kept us grounded among the thornier details of Hogwarts, Quidditch, the Death Eaters, and entire mythology of Rowling’s wider wizarding world.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of a promised five films to spin-off the Potter franchise, has no such charms. Sure, all the fixings are there—the goblins, the spells, the magical creatures—but these were always meant to be the garnish rather than the main course. You have to care deeply about the figures at the center of all this madness, the relatable people who navigate Rowling’s narrative. But the stars of this film aren’t the people, it’s the world—a world that feels less like a new, organic story than a brand extension. Now, Harry Potter is not a terrible brand to extend; spinning off Rowling’s universe will provide more rewards than another Transformers movie. I looked forward to every Harry Potter movie, even the eighth one. But judging by the first film of Fantastic Beasts, I can’t imagine making it through four more of these things.
Beasts takes place during the Roaring Twenties—are we going to learn that the Depression was caused by wizards around film four?—and the plot revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a sort of Dr. Doolittle collector of the eponymous fantastic beasts. He tries to protect the creatures from extinction and predators, but foolishly, he decides to take them on a trip from England to New York City. Inevitably, a few escape, and he must track them down with Tina, a disgraced auror (Katherine Waterson), Jacob, a befuddled human (Dan Folger), and Tina’s flapper roommate (Alison Sudol). Meanwhile—and this is movie that is stuffed with meanwhiles—a rogue wizard is wreaking havoc on the human world, causing major headaches for wizard President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), and her top enforcer, Graves (Colin Farrell), who may have other motives. Meanwhile, a woman runs a cruel anti-witch orphanage that may be hiding the most dangerous wizard of all. And meanwhile there’s some sort of newspaper baron (Jon Voight) who I assume will figure into all this more relevantly in future movies.
The film strains considerably under the weight of all these plot lines—it’s never fun to be the movie with the origin story. Newt, Tina, and the gang spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down all those creatures, which keeps them busy while the plot itself unspools, seemingly in the background. And I’m sorry to say that their story is not particularly compelling. Redmayne and Waterson are both terrific, charismatic actors, but they’re both tamped down here, particularly Redmayne, who is so obligated to be “whimsical” in the Rowling sense that he barely enunciates his dialogue, seemingly whispering all of it out the side of his mouth. He is so good-hearted, simple, and nondescript that it’s sort of crazy that he’s going to be the centerpiece of four or five more films. He isn’t given more motivation than “loves animals,” and an eleventh-hour attempt to give him a sad backstory feels more tacked on than anything else. Farrell is a potentially worthy villain, but he has nothing much to do more than glower and, in the climax, give way to a much more famous, but far less enjoyable, movie star. (When this “surprise” movie star is revealed, I swear, half my theater groaned.)