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J.K. Rowling may have been truthful when she said the Harry Potter series was over. But perhaps that’s because she knew she had more wizards up her sleeve with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them—to the tune of a $180 million debut film and four (!) sequels.
But let’s back up and explain why the franchise agreement is so jaw-dropping. Fantastic Beasts is based on a textbook of the same name that was mentioned once as part of Harry’s curriculum in Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. When the books caught fire, Rowling decided to flesh out Fantastic Beasts as a lark under the nom de plume Newt Scamander—this film’s main character—complete with notes from Harry, Ron, and Hermione and scratches on the cover from one such beast. Proceeds from the textbook go to charity. Proceeds for this franchise go into Rowling’s and Warner Bros.’s pockets.
Rowling also made her screenwriting debut with Fantastic Beasts, which was helmed by four-time Potter director David Yates and is being billed as a spinoff that takes place in 1926, 70 years before Harry’s story begins. Eddie Redmayne plays Newt, a magizoologist who is currently researching his book and arrives in New York City with a briefcase full of magical creatures. Why he’s in New York is never clearly explained—first failing of the freshman scripter—but as he gets acquainted with the city, he stops to listen to Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), who is on the steps of a bank bellowing Salem-esque warnings about witches among them.
During Mary Lou’s speech, one of Newt’s beasts—a platypus-looking creature—escapes his briefcase and causes havoc in the bank, grabbing every shiny coin it sees. Meanwhile, a working-class man named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is trying to secure a loan to start a bakery, with a briefcase of his own filled with treats. Mayhem ensues as Newt runs around the establishment, eventually having to zap Jacob through walls once the baker catches sight of the creature, with the intention of obliviating his memory. When Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), essentially a cop tasked with arresting witches and wizards who use magic among “no-majs (American for “muggles”), stops Newt, Jacob gets away, but not with his own briefcase.
The rest of the 133-minute movie involves Porpentina (who’d actually been fired and was attempting to get her job back) and Newt hunting down Jacob, and then the three of them hunting down the fantastic beasts that had escaped. Though the opening scenes emphasize the lookout for a dark wizard named Grindelwald (one headline reads “Hogwarts increases security”) and Colin Farrell makes occasional appearances as Percival Graves, the head of magical law enforcement, Rowling takes considerable time circling back to the issue of Grindelwald, and it’s never clear whether Graves is a good wizard or a bad wizard. We do know that he’s tasked one of Mary Lou’s creepy adopted children, Credence (Ezra Miller), with helping him find a child whom Graves saw in a “vision.”
Fantastic Beasts maintains some of Harry Potter’s charms, including photos that move and a lovely dinner scene at Porpentina’s apartment (shared with her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), during which plates, food, and candles float gracefully to the table. There’s light humor throughout, and its presentation of 1920s New York is quaint, full of cobblestones and brownstones. Overall the film is a bit more adult than Potter, with some frightening moments and an unmistakable suggestion of physical abuse.
Redmayne’s Newt is a bit annoying, with the actor perpetually hunched over and mumbling, projecting a shyness that’s not terribly endearing. (And who knows what the hell he’s doing when, hopping around with his ass sticking out, he tries to catch a beast in heat.) And though the sight of the creatures and bits of enchantment may carry you through till the end, ultimately the story is too thin to truly engage. There’s an exciting moment in the third chapter involving a secret cameo that the studio hasn’t been terribly good at protecting (nevertheless, you won’t read about it here), but then it’s followed by a finale so protracted, the credits could have arguably rolled a few times before they eventually do. Rowling may be back, but her magic has largely been lost.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens Friday at area theaters.