Back in 1997, author J.K. Rowling unveiled a fantasy novel, titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, introducing readers around the world to Harry Potter, an orphan who, on his eleventh birthday, learns he is a wizard. Potter is whisked away from his mundane reality to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he practices magic under the guidance of Albus Dumbledore and makes lifelong friends in Rubeus Hagrid, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. During his time at the school, Potter learns of his magical heritage, and of Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard who's responsible for the death of his parents.
In 1998, Rowling's book — released in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — was selected as the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, a Publishers Weekly Best Book, and the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and topped the NY Times list of best-selling fiction. The book found immense popularity, critical acclaim, and worldwide commercial success, eventually spawning six sequels and becoming a cornerstone of modern young adult literature.
In 2001, Warner Bros released a feature film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Chris Columbus, with Rowling serving as a creative consultant. That same year, the author released a supplementary material to the series, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a textbook owned by Harry Potter and written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander. The 128-page book details the history of Magizoology and describes 85 magical species found around the world.
Fast-forward to 2013. After the Harry Potter franchise had become the second-highest-grossing film series with $7.7 billion in worldwide receipts, Warner Bros announced that Rowling was penning a screenplay — her first — based on Fantastic Beasts and the adventures of Newt Scamander, set in 1926, 70 years before "The Boy Who Lived" attended Hogwarts. A year later, it was announced that the movie would be the first entry in a prequel trilogy. Two years after that, Rowling cast a Gemino spell and magically transformed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into a five-film series. Warner Bros — the studio that stretched The Hobbit into three flimsy films and has yet to make anything of their DC Extended Universe — needs a guaranteed box office hit to compete with Walt Disney and the one-two punch of Star Wars and Marvel Studios. And so here we are, with five Harry Potter prequels based on a 128-page faux-textbook.
Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stars Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne (seen in The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl) as Newt Scamander, an eccentric, introverted wizard who has dedicated his life to researching and rescuing magical creatures. He safeguards these endangered animals in an enchanted suitcase that contains a plethora of terrains for them to inhabit. Newt's commitment to these creatures has brought him to New York City, to return a Thunderbird named Frank to his natural habitat. His plans are put on hold, however, when he accidentally swaps suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a "No-Maj" (American for Muggle) factory worker, who unleashes the Magizoologist's beloved beasts into the streets.
Meanwhile, a malicious evil force is causing widespread unrest in the wizarding world. Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) believes that wizards are a superior race, and is gathering support from those who share his anti-Muggle sentiment. MACUSA (aka the Magical Congress of the United States of America) President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) and Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), investigate the mysterious entity wreaking havoc in the city while ex-Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her bubbly sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), help Newt and Jacob hunt down his beasts before they come to harm. Their mission, however, will put them on a collision course with Grindelwald's dark forces, and could potentially push the wizarding and No-Maj worlds to the brink of war.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has its charms, namely all the creatures. There's the mischievous Niffler, a furry, duck-billed rodent with a marsupial-type pouch that expands to store an endless amount of shiny coins and purloined treasures. The Niffler is impossibly cute, and the scenes in which Newt and Jacob attempt to catch the rascally rodent comprise the movie's most entertaining moments. There's also a twig-like Bowtruckle named Pickett, the silver-haired Demiguise, a sloth-ape with precognitive sight and the power of invisibility, and Occamy, a winged dragon that can grow or shrink to fit any space. The creatures, designed by Yates, Rowling, visual effects supervisors Tim Burke & Christian Manz, and Pablo Grillo's VFX computer animation team, are wondrous and show a spark of creativity the rest of the film lacks.
As for the story, it's stretched impossibly thin. Newt's adventure works fine as Pokémon for the Jazz Age, but the film's larger narrative, involving the anti-magic New Salem Philanthropic Society and a young man named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), simply doesn't work. An overwrought finale filled with false endings and computer-generated mass destruction doesn't help either. Regarding performances, Redmayne is adequate as Newt, a likable if insignificant character who feels overshadowed in his own movie. Fogler is surprisingly tolerable as the comedic relief, but it's actually Colin Farrell who gives the film its only standout performance as the enigmatic Graves. Really, with so little happening in terms of narrative or emotional stakes, it's all the creatures that steal the show. The film's greatest pleasures are in exploring Newt's suitcase full of magical animals — and the Niffler's hijinks, of course.
By bringing Grindelwald — a character prominent in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — into the picture, it's clear that these films will be more concerned with expanding the Potter universe than telling a new story that stands on its own. I imagine that, by the time we reach the fifth Beasts film, we'll see Newt as a guest professor at Hogwarts, teaching a class of bright students, including Young Severus Snape™, Young Lily Potter™, Young James Potter™, and Young Sirius Black™. By then, Warner Bros and Rowling will have already announced their next seven-film saga, following Harry's parents through their schooling at Hogwarts and end where Philosopher's Stone begins. And then in 2030, once all the magic has been drained from the series, a 41-year-old Daniel Radcliffe will return for — of course — the big-screen adaptation of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, sending fans young and old on a nostalgic trip back to Hogwarts.
Until then, we'll have to make do with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, an underwhelming entry in the ever-expanding Potter lore that offers little, other than reminding us how good the original films are.
Adam's Rating: 3 out of 5
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