Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a half-baked expansion to one of the greatest film and book franchises of all time that will almost be entirely forgotten by the time you leave the theater. Running over two hours in length, the first of four films planned in the extended Potter-verse boasts a paper-thin script driven by one of the world’s oldest plot devices and a main character who manages to appear in almost every frame without telling us a single thing about who they are outside of this particular story.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt Scamander, a thinly veiled Doctor Who knockoff—complete with the traveling home that appears small on the outside, but in reality is indescribably large—who opens the film by arriving in New York City with a briefcase filled with strange creatures he gathered from somewhere at some point in time we never learn. Why he’s in the U.S. for what appears to be the first time ever is never fully explained, nor does he have a good cover story worked out. Newt simply exists, and within what seems to be less than a couple hours in the city his world is turned upside down when he accidentally switches briefcases with a No-Maj (American for Muggle, AKA a non-magic person) named Kowalski (Dan Fogler—the true star of the film, if we’re judging solely based on performance.
Add to this an all-too-brief sequence at the top of the film capturing the aftermath of a strange attack in the city, and this is all the setup Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them has to offer. As soon as Newt realizes his beasts have gone missing he sets out to find his missing briefcase, but before he can the creatures escape and begin causing chaos throughout the streets of New York. At least, that is what the film leads you to believe will happen. In truth the bulk of the creatures never bother a single person, and they never really seem all that hard to find. Newt doesn’t even have a trick or device to help with locating his missing creatures. He simply goes outside and begins hunting.
At Newt’s side for this adventure is Kowalski, a former investigator named Tina (Katherine Waterston), and Tina’s hyperactive sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). All three of these characters are endlessly more interesting than Newt, and the chemistry between Kowalski and Queenie is the only believable relationship on screen. I would gladly watch an entire film about their blossoming love, or even one about Tina’s adventures as an Agent Carter for the Potter-verse, before signing up for another Fantastic Beasts. While Newt is busy looking baffled at everything in the city, not to mention having apparently zero understanding of how the wizarding world works in the United States, it’s Kowalski, Tina, and Queenie who keep you glued to the screen. If it weren’t for the CGI creatures, which offer for a brief distraction from the monotony of the story every few minutes, the job of keeping people entertained rests entirely on their shoulders.
And speaking of the beasts, which are pretty fantastic looking, I’m still not sure why we’re supposed to care about these creatures aside from the fact that they are loose in the city. Newt speaks endless about how misunderstood they all are, but the film never finds time to explain or even take a long look at a single creature. They’re both brilliantly designed and ridiculously underutilized, serving as little more than bright colored space fillers throughout the majority of the film.
Universe building is injected into the story randomly through references to characters and places people know from the adventures of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley. At one point someone asks Newt why Dumbledore speaks so highly of him. In another instance, Newt debates the best wizardry school in an exchange that seems to exist solely so the name Hogwarts can be shoehorned into a story where it isn’t needed. The ending sets up a potential series finale that will connect to one of the biggest battles ever mentioned in J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series, but it’s still a long ways from actually happening.
By the time the villain teased at the top of the story comes back into the fold in a meaningful way the movie is already more than half over. Maybe this is because the film wastes a lot of time exploring the many quirks of Newt, but I think the more likely culprit is the numerous sequels already in various stages of pre-production. The fact that more films are already on the way places no pressure on Fantastic Beasts to tell a complete story, or even be a good film in its own right, so instead the movie feels more or less like a two-hour and 12-minute trailer for the forthcoming trilogy of sequels. Even if we accept that as being something done intentionally, Fantastic Beasts fails to offer a sliver of the entertainment value Harry Potter brought into our lives. The magic may be back, but the awe and wonder is long gone.