It's been five years since "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" left theaters, marking the end of JK Rowling's Wonderful Wizarding World on film. As soon as "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" was announced, Pott-Heads (I hope I just coined that) around the world rejoiced that we would finally get to head back into the densely-rich world Rowling created.
The easiest comparison would be when Peter Jackson headed back to Middle Earth for "The Hobbit" films. While no one thinks those movies are better than "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, they didn't retroactively make the earlier films worse because of their existence. Really, that's all you can expect from "Fantastic Beasts" because you're getting mostly all new characters in a different time period on a different continent.
The "Harry Potter" films and books are so popular because we love Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Snape and everyone else. Even though the "Fantastic Beasts'" screenplay is written by Rowling herself, she isn't quite able to make the character of Newt Scamander interesting in his own regard.
Scamander (serviceably played by Eddie Redmayne) has traveled from England to 1920s New York with a suitcase filled with magical creatures. His reasons aren't important, as the real crux of the story is his accidental involvement with the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and their hunt for the deadly wizard Gellert Grindelwald. He teams up with an ex-auror (the magic police in the original Potter films), a muggle (called a No-Maj in the U.S.) and a psychic to track down his creatures and avoid an all out war between wizards, witches and the No-Maj.
"Fantastic Beasts" is quite entertaining with a few show-stopping sequences and a few outright clunkers, but what's most impressive is that it tells a complete story. When it was announced a few months ago that this would be the first in a five-picture series, I imagined that we would just get the first act in a much larger story (like "The Hobbit" films), but "Fantastic Beasts) only leaves a few dangling threads for the next film to pick up.
The biggest problem is the third act, which I can't spoil here as it's the big twist of the movie that sets up what's to come. It's a bold narrative choice, but it turns a huge chunk of the story that came before into pointless characterization and dramatically inert multiple dead ends. The film ends with a bit of a sigh, not giving audiences much of a reason to be excited about later films in the franchise.
The supporting cast, including the never-better Dan Fogler as Kowalski the No-Maj, Katherine Waterston as Goldstein, Alison Sudol as Queenie, Colin Farrell as Graves and Ezra Miller as Credence, are all so perfectly cast that it's easy to forget how bland Redmayne's role is. It's nice that Scamander is a protector of rare and magical animals and he's a good guy and all, but he's a total Mary Sue. "Fantastic Beasts" needed a character with a bit more gravitas and a few more gray areas to carry it to the dark places it wanted to go.
What it all comes down to is that the movie is fun. Director David Yates (responsible for the last four "Harry Potter" movies) brings a continuity of style to the film that keeps everything feeling like part of the Wizarding World. I guess I'm just selfish because I wanted more. I wanted to be enraptured and moved by the events and I wanted to fall in love with Scamander and his friends—but just being back in this wonderful world will have to be enough for now.
Dir. David Yates
Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX and Sisters Movie House