Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler. Directed by David Yates. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
After eight movies, the Harry Potter series didn’t really seem like it was in need of expansion, and new prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (the first of five planned movies) doesn’t make a strong case for itself as an essential addition. But it’s an entertaining ride nonetheless, and its action (which takes place in New York City in 1926) is far enough removed from the main movies that it can stand pretty well on its own, even if references to Hogwarts and Muggles abound. Written by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling (although not based on any existing novels) and directed by Potter series veteran David Yates, Fantastic Beasts is a grand, overstuffed and generally engaging story about English wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, mumbly and whispery as ever), who takes a trip to New York City with his magical suitcase full of strange creatures, and finds himself caught up in a dangerous plot with far-reaching implications.
More immediately, Newt must scour the city for the handful of beasts who manage to escape his rather poorly secured containment vessel, while making sure not to reveal the existence of magic and wizards to average folks (“Muggles,” in previous Potter parlance, and referred to as “No-Majs” by American wizards). To this end, he teams up with American wizard Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an official in the local magical administration, and No-Maj baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, providing solid comic relief), an innocent bystander who inadvertently tags along.
Newt’s quest to recapture his weird, cute and creatively designed beasts (many of which will provide excellent merchandising opportunities) is light and fun, a showcase for the movie’s impressive special effects and Yates’ well-honed skills at staging magical set pieces. But that’s only part of the plot, and the series’ larger story about a dark force terrorizing the city and the looming threat of an evil wizard proves more nebulous and less thrilling. Like too many movies in modern Hollywood mega-franchises, Fantastic Beasts devotes significant time to setting up storylines that may or may not pay off later (an entire subplot featuring Jon Voight as a newspaper tycoon serves no discernible purpose), and its main villain, a sinister wizarding official played by Colin Farrell, is completely useless.
But other aspects of the story do offer promise for future installments, and the characters are charming enough to make watching their future adventures a welcome prospect. Nothing in Fantastic Beasts has the depth or resonance of watching Harry, Ron and Hermione come of age, but with its adult characters, this movie is by nature more of a thrill ride than an emotional journey. As thrill rides go, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.