Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a solid Harry Potter series movie but often prioritizes setup over memorable drama or spellbinding action.
Prior to publishing the Wizarding World's go-to Magizoology textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander traveled the world in search of magical animals - to educate himself and the wizarding community as well as protect his creatures from humans (both malicious and oblivious, alike). Along his travels, Newt heads to New York City in 1926 to aid a rare beast in need of his assistance - only to lose his enchanted suitcase (a portable zoo), resulting in the escape of several mischievous critters who proceed to run amok in the Big Apple. Newt's not-so-subtle efforts to find his missing beasts comes at the worst time possible for the magic community in New York City - as a conflict with malevolent wizards, tired of living in the shadows, threatens to reveal the Wizarding World to America.
With tensions high, Newt attracts the attention of disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), aspiring bakery owner and No-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and the Director of Magical Security within the Magical Congress of the United States of America, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), all of whom become entangled in the search for an exceptionally dangerous (albeit fantastic) beast - a creature the MACUSA believed extinct, capable of not only harming human and magical beings but, in the wrong hands, could shatter the Wizarding World from within.
An extension of the Harry Potter book and film series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them builds upon a relatively minor piece of Wizarding World lore in an effort to kick-off a new blockbuster film series. To revive the franchise, which had effectively been concluded in The Deathly Hallows - Part 2, Warner Bros. Pictures reenlisted director David Yates (helmer of the final four Harry Potter films) to lead the Fantastic Beasts spinoff - from an original screenplay penned by creator J.K. Rowling. Yates meets the expectations for any Harry Potter franchise entry; yet, given that Warner Bros. hopes to extend the prequel series into several more films, the director's latest film is often subverted by the studio's interest in establishing new heroes, villains, and narrative through-lines. Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a solid Harry Potter series movie but often prioritizes setup over memorable drama or spellbinding action.
The film is the first Harry Potter movie installment to be free of a published source novel storyline, allowing Rowling and Yates to drastically expand the scope of Wizarding World mythology. Where previous Harry Potter films were largely limited to the grounds of Hogwarts (and London), Fantastic Beasts focuses on magic users in post-World War 1 era New York City - providing a unique setting and viewpoint through which to explore how other countries and other people understood magic (both its responsibilities and its dangers). To that end, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers thought-provoking parallels to its predecessor series - where Harry Potter was a story about acceptance and nurturing those who are different, Fantastic Beasts is a more cautionary tale about the dangers of repression, rejection, and fear of the "other".
Fantastic Beasts sets its aim high but the film itself is stuck juggling several competing objectives - meaning that some, especially the movie's villain, are underserved; instead, Yates lays a fertile platform on which he, or other directors, can continue to build and iterate. It's a less rigid story - packed with clever world-building, Harry Potter fan service, stylish set pieces, laugh-out-loud gags, whimsical creatures, and likable new leads; though, the central mystery follows a meandering course onward to an underwhelming and underdeveloped final act confrontation and reveal. It's not a bad through-line but Yates and Rowling lean heavily on flat caricatures (another abusive foster parent) and cliches (spiteful politicians) that audiences will have zero investment in - and are only present to establish corners of the franchise world and shape tangential characters for future movies rather than fortifying the story at hand.
Fortunately, the "Fantastic Beasts" themselves (even if they're a little too fantastical looking to bridge the uncanny valley) are a fun access point for audiences to experience uncharted elements of Harry Potter lore - as well as meet new hero, Newt Scamander. The film comes alive when relishing in Newt's enthusiasm and knowledge of magical animals but, compared to the original Harry Potter protagonists, Newt is (at this point) a pretty subdued lead - in spite of a likable performance from Eddie Redmayne. The talented actor crafts a sweet sketch of Newt; however, Fantastic Beasts is too dense to provide enough material that differentiates the character from other players in the Harry Potter series. He has potential but Yates and Redmayne only scratch the surface this round. Newt (and consequently Redmayne) is at his best when interacting with his beasts, which include several genuinely sweet scenes, but is regularly overshadowed by supporting characters with bolder personalities.
Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is confined in a similar frame. She's a charming part of Fantastic Beasts and the film provides Tina with some satisfying moments but Yates falls short in earning a meaningful return on the heroine's backstory, connections to current events, or interest in Newt. Like Redmayne, Waterston has the outline for a great Harry Potter Universe character in the long run but Fantastic Beasts underserves Tina in this story.
Conversely, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) outshine their headline counterparts throughout the movie. The pair repeatedly breathe life into scenes where Newt and Tina are stuck trading exposition - and, in the process, Jacob as well as Queenie reveal a surprising amount of nuance. While Jacob and Queenie could have been stock comic relief, Yates employs them in subtle ways that both develop their own characters as well as emphasize important aspects of Newt and Tina. Fans might root for Newt and Tina to save the day but they will also, without question, find that Jacob and Queenie are the heart of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
The cast also includes appearances from Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, and Jon Voight (not to mention Ron Perlman, among others) but the movie speeds past their respective contributions before they can make a significant impact. Farrell and Miller are afforded surface-level definition as Percival Graves and Credence Barebone, respectively; yet, by the end, both actors are underused, and while their characters leave a lasting mark on the Wizarding World, it is those actions (not the pair's presence on-screen) that will leave a lasting impression on moviegoers. Credence, in particular, is a hapless casualty of a film that is trying to both relaunch a profitable franchise and tell a worthwhile standalone story. Miller brings sincerity to his role, and Credence is a rewarding counterpoint to themes viewers will have seen explored in the original Harry Potter series but much of that depth is implied - rather than included.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is also playing in 3D as well as IMAX but, unlike some of the later Harry Potter movies, a premium ticket isn't a requirement. Even though Yates makes use of bigger screens, better sound, and 3D visuals, his latest is smaller in scale than The Deathly Hallows. For viewers who prefer the best viewing experience possible, upgraded tickets might be worthwhile - but they're not essential this time either.
While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn't the most impactful Harry Potter story - or a fully-developed movie on its own, Yates delivers where it counts most: entertainment and fun. The magical creatures are enchanting and the director ensures Newt's beasts aren't an afterthought once the plot is in motion. It might not be a numbered Harry Potter installment but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them provides the same blend of wonder, humor, and heart as J.K. Rowling's original book series (and films). Hopefully, now that Warner Bros. has established a spin-off platform, future chapters will have more time to relish in the current story and flesh out this new batch of characters. Nevertheless, in the meantime, longtime fans and casual filmgoers both have good reason to rediscover the Wizarding World.