Zaki's Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When it comes to the mega-popular Harry Potter franchise, my personal context is having dozed through parts of the first two movies, 2001's The Sorcerer's Stone and 2002's The Chamber of Secrets, and that's it. It's not that I didn't enjoy them, but having missed them during their initial releases and not having read any of the books, the most immediate sensation I had was of feeling like I really wasn't the primary audience for the series. (I've been assured, by the way, that they take a sharp qualitative uptick with the third film, and I promise, I'll get there eventually.)

Anyway, the preceding is simply my way of couching whatever I have to say about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest attempt to squeeze blood from -- er, that is to say, expand the universe that author J.K. Rowling first brought to life nearly twenty years ago. And borrowing a page from previous geek-friendly movie series like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings that found the best way to carry the brand forward by going backwards, so too does this latest entry into the "Wizarding World" go the prequel route, with a story set some seven decades before young Mr. Potter first donned his striped scarf and enrolled in Hogwarts.

With Harry and company off the board, this leaves us with main character Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a former student at Hogwarts who arrives in New York in 1926 bringing with him a magic suitcase that offers a clue as to those "fantastic beasts" promised by the title. Of course, the wizarding scene is very different across the ocean, as Scamander soon learns, teams with MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States, natch) agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) along with human ("no-maj") Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to round up his coterie of creatures that are on the loose.

Before long, the trio is caught up in an internecine struggle involving the MACUSA and supervisor Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), as they try to bring a wraith-like creature called an Obscurus into check before the existence of magic is inadvertently revealed to the world, while an odd adolescent played by Ezra Klein fritters about the edges of the narrative for mysterious reasons. Various incantations and spell-castings and wand battles ensue, with a cameo in the closing moments helpfully laying the pipe for several future entries in this nascent series (Rowling has signaled that we should expect four more).

Now, director David Yates, who helmed the entire back half of the previous Potter catalog (as well as last summer's The Legend of Tarzan), certainly doesn't lack for credibility when it comes to this franchise. But even though the script (by Rowling herself) strives to pave its own path and avoids prequel-y fanservice ("Look! It's Hermione's grandmother!" "So that's why Hagrid works at Hogwarts!") in favor of parceled-out backstory to gradually unfurl in the future, Fantastic Beasts is still so deeply rooted in the very specific milieu of the prior movies that I can't imagine anyone who's not already onboard feeling particularly satisfied.

One of Fantastic Beasts' biggest issues is that Scamander isn't so much a character as he is a collection of tics, with broad hints of an arc to be filled in later. This is a marked contrast with Harry Potter, who is a compelling enough presence on his own, completely separate from the fictional universe he occupies. Of course, given that this is part of a beloved franchise that already has millions of firmly-ensconced fans all across the globe, maybe that's not as much of a problem as it seems. Certainly, one glance at the grin on my nine-year-old Potter fan's face while watching was proof enough that they had his number, at least.

And with that in mind, it's important to remember that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives with a deep and wide audience already primed and ready for it, which is certainly a good advantage to have in the blockbuster game (and which surely explains why Warner Bros. jumped at the chance to extend and expand the brand). As such, I have to imagine that fanbase felt a tingle of joy travel down its collective spine after hearing the promise of four more Fantastic Beasts entries on the way. But man, as the credits rolled and the foreknowledge of a collective eight-to-ten more hours of this stuff hit me, all I felt was fatigue. B-

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