The great joy of revisiting the wizarding world of Harry Potter is spending time with its characters. Any chance to thumb through well-worn pages of the novels or tune into a Freeform (formerly ABC Family) marathon of the films feels less like experiencing a story and more like catching up with old friends over a pint of butterbeer. David Yates’ “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the latest film set in the Potter universe, and it is no different, giving us characters that are as endearing as Harry, Ron and Hermione.
“Fantastic Beasts” is set 70 years before the events of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and it follows Newt Scamander, a magizoologist who enters 1920s New York with a briefcase filled with the titular beasts. When a handful of the magical creatures escapes, Newt scrambles to recover them before they wreak havoc upon the Non-Magical (No-Maj, for short), aka Muggle, inhabitants of New York. But an undercurrent of dark wizardry threatens to violently tear down the veil separating No-Majes and wizards.
Esteemed Potterverse creator JK Rowling makes her screenwriting debut with this film, and her penchant for creating likable characters shines. Seriously, she could write about sentient pocket lint and it would probably be fascinating.
Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is a Hufflepuff hero for the ages, an earnest guy who would love nothing more than to hang out with the Bowtruckles, Thunderbird and Occamies living in his briefcase. He befriends Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a tough but down-on-her-luck former-auror who is determined to bust the bigotry of the “Second Salemers,” a No-Maj group that suspects (and hates) the existence of magic in its midst. Her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), is a free-wheeling and prodigious Legilimens with a knack for conjuring mind-blowingly amazing strudels. Finally, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is the No-Maj of the group, a beautiful cinnamon roll too pure for this world, who just wants to open his own bakery.
These new characters give the film a familiar sense of soul. It’s the same sense of heart that we’ve seen before in the original series, which endows “Fantastic Beasts” with the pathos that makes the Potterverse special. Yet, the likability of the new characters can’t save the film from its uneven pacing. At times, the film casts a petrificus totalus on itself, paralyzing its own momentum in scenes with little effect on the rest of the film. Some of the action set-pieces also drag on unnecessarily, as does the ending. While time spent with the film’s new heroes is enjoyable, such filler makes the film’s 133-minute runtime palpably apparent to the viewer.
“Fantastic Beasts” also falls into the tentpole filmmaking traps that have become all too familiar as of late. The film opens with exposition that exists purely to set up future installments. There is some payoff to this in the finale, but it comes in the form of a brief cameo that will likely leave audience members scratching their heads. In addition, the third act is the same CGI Hurricane of Meh that we’ve seen countless times before, suggesting that most modern animators all secretly enjoy wreaking digital urban apocalypse. The film could have easily crafted a more intimate, personally confrontational finale, particularly with the deep characters that Rowling creates.
Much rides on the success of “Fantastic Beasts,” the goals of which are two-fold: Kick off a five-film series to maintain non-DC Comics cash for Warner Bros and keep Rowling’s Potterverse fresh for nostalgia-hungry fans. “Fantastic Beasts” largely succeeds at accomplishing these goals, as any film featuring Newt Scamander and his friends is more than welcome. As the Potterverse grows, if the films maintain the same attention to detail that Rowling puts into creating her characters, then fans will be shouting “Accio!” for future installments.