For nearly two decades, J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world has been a force to be reckoned with, first in bookstores and then in movie theaters. Rowling herself is due all the credit for creating the magical universe inhabited by memorable characters centered on Harry Potter and his friends. Now, Rowling is back with her first screenplay, which expands a short story previously mentioned in the Potter series – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The short story itself may only be 126 pages, but the possibilities for expanding this briefly-mentioned story within the Rowling universe into a whole new franchise are endless–if done correctly. Despite a fairly straightforward plot, Rowling offers more than enough to invest in a new spin-off franchise, which features new charming characters, impressive, visually-rendered magical beasts, and a story that, while simplistic, offers up a likable, leading wizard in Newt Scamander, who warrants further character exploration.
The year is 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident, were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
As far as the plot goes, the above-mentioned plot description is just about all you’re getting in this spin-off. The Harry Potter series relied on supporting characters and subplots to help drive Harry’s story over seven novels and eight movies. Underlying dark subplots and themes that plant the seeds of this new franchise are sprinkled throughout the course of Fantastic Beasts. But like many franchise-starting vehicles, there is just a little bit too much going on, which hinders the main story in terms of character development and focus on subplots. There’s no denying that Rowling knows how to introduce us to a new realm of her wizarding world and the people who inhabit it, but it’s too much to take in all at once. This is where I would say a sequel for Fantastic Beasts is needed in order to flesh out the intriguing characters surrounding Newt. But given how Fantastic Beasts ends, the next sequel in this franchise will have to provide justification for Newt’s adventures to feel plausible for five (yes, five) movies in this franchise.
A few characters that Rowling introduces to us in Fantastic Beasts are delightful and are worth investing in. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) is splendid as the introverted wizard, Newt Scamander, whose actions seem harmless at first, but open up a can of worms (or beasts from a suitcase in this case) that cause a whole lot of commotion for higher-ups in the magical world. Newt might not be Harry Potter, but he is certainly a protagonist worth getting behind thanks in large part to Redmayne’s sensibility as the awkward wizard. Katherine Waterston (Alien: Covenant) and Alison Sudol (Dig) are good as Tina and Queenie Goldstein, who despite being sisters are complete opposites. Waterston’s Tina is bent and will do anything to rebuild her reputation at the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Alison’s Queenie is laid back despite her ability to read minds, which draw a few laughs. Dan Fogler (Take Me Home Tonight) portrays Jacob Kowalski, a Muggle (someone who lacks magical abilities), who provides comic relief when necessary. While Kowalski might draw laughs mostly because he’s witnessing magic for the first time, you’ll also be intrigued by his aspirations to be a baker. In smaller roles, Colin Farrell (True Detective) and Ezra Miller (Perks of Being a Wallflower) play peculiar characters that drive the movie’s dark subplots, but they become afterthoughts since they aren’t given much in favor of the previously-mentioned actors that are the main focus of Fantastic Beasts.
Warner Brothers should be thrilled to have David Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter movies, back in the director’s chair. Yates orchestrates a handful of action sequences (all set to a musical score reminiscent of the Harry Potter movies, of course) that make up for Fantastic Beasts’ shortcomings, especially when we see wizards interact with magical beasts that spring from Newt’s suitcase. While Rowling’s screenplay could have used some fine tuning, the magical beasts Rowling created are spectacles to behold and make Newt’s adventure exciting. Not only are these beasts visually wonderful to gaze upon, but also unique in their own way when set loose in New York City, which also is visually stunning as the story’s background setting. Some of the beasts may be familiar to diehard Harry Potter fans, as a few make appear on screen despite being only slightly referenced in Harry Potter’s story. But Fantastic Beasts also will entice people who are just now being introduced to Rowling’s wizarding world. Hopefully, Rowling is holding back more magical beasts that are just as memorable as the ones in this movie to reveal in sequels (particularly one beast called a Niffler). It’s also worth noting that production design and visual effects in Fantastic Beasts are spot-on and enhance the visual effects from the magical beasts; the inner workings of the Magical Congress of the United States of America building is eye candy in itself.
The world of Fantastic Beasts is bigger than Harry Potter’s story, but it doesn’t offer much more than what we see on the surface. But still, certain elements, from lead characters to magical creatures and even the story, at times, are not only original. But they are strong and give hope for a fantastic (pun intended) sequel, even if we don’t know where Newt’s story goes after Fantastic Beasts ends. Besides adding Johnny Depp as a key component to the sequels (I might be in the minority, but I love the casting), I’m not sure what Rowling has in store for Newt. And, honestly, I’m also not sure how Rowling is going to pull off this entire franchise in five movies; but I won’t doubt Rowling’s masterful world-building abilities after journeying with her through Harry Potter’s entire story. I mean, that was part of my childhood.