The Harry Potter franchise officially becomes an Expanded Cinematic Universe with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in what Warner Bros. promises will be five J.K. Rowling-scripted original films, prequels to the Potter‘s proper. Centering around conservationalist wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who travels the globe capturing said fantastic beasts and shoving them into his magic suitcase/portable zoo, it unsurprisingly contains the same features and bugs as any of the other films. The best elements have always been the textural details. Swapping the vaunted halls of present-day Hogwarts Academy for 1920s New York and the institutional bureaucracy of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA for short) is a pretty genius move, allowing us all sorts of glimpses into the seemingly banal operative aspects of this amazing hidden network, and internal strife within the wizarding world regarding its relationship to muggle (or, here in the US, “no-maj”) society lends this a little extra dose of timeliness.
So much imagination has been put into creating this rich backdrop. It’s a shame all of that stuff is far more interesting than the story itself.
But of course a typical-for-Potter jumbled plot must eventually intervene. Some unseen force is, for reasons never entirely clear, smashing buildings and attacking politicians. Immediately the Congress suspects one of Newt’s recently escaped creatures, and so he’s got to go on the run to both rescue his charges and solve the mystery. There are terrific interludes here, such as a trip into Newt’s menagerie, displaying all the strange monsters and their particular abilities—they might as well be Pokemon. But every time the characters stop to explain stuff to each other (which they do constantly), the movie grinds to a halt. Of course it all wraps up with a thoroughly generic CG cloud wrecking the city, followed by a bunch of sorcerers showing up to magically put everything back together (same exact ending as Doctor Strange, by the way). It’s another crushingly dull, vague mystery solved simply because a random character reveals a crucial bit of info or knows the exact perfect spell or something that ought to have happened in the first 15 minutes. So much imagination has been put into creating this rich backdrop. It’s a shame all of that stuff is far more interesting than the story itself.