|Photo Credit: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them / Warner Bros. Pictures
Based in the 1920s, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) briefly travels to New York City while en route to Arizona. Unaware of the U.S. wizarding government's ban on magical beasts, Scamander's creatures are in danger when they're accidentally set loose. No-Maj - American equivalent to Muggle - Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), a former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katharine Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Allison Sudol) team up with the British native to catch his critters before the wizarding world is exposed.
Veteran Harry Potter director David Yates returns to helm this next franchise with Rowling tackling the role of screenwriter. By reputation, this duo have some fair expectations to live up to but also the freedom to start from scratch. Introducing a new collection of characters into a familiar setting is no easy feat, and together they conjure an enjoyable flick.
Mainly we ride the Hufflepuff coattails of bashful and awkward Scamander. He's naturally more comfortable with animals than people, but instead of fully succumbing to a fear of not fitting in, he protects his unique "beasts" from being abused or mistreated by other wizards. His creatures are absolutely adorable (GIVE ME A NIFFLER AND BOW TRUCKLE NOW PLEASE), and the story lovingly explores his struggling relationship with humanity.
Along with him for the ride are two witches and a No-Maj. Career gal Tina Goldstein might do anything to get back into the President's good graces but her doubts against Scamander are transformed by his sweet but oblivious nature. Her vivacious sister Queenie uses her telepathic gifts to help, and they all develop a close friendship with Jacob (beautifully played by Folger). Each character is connected by the world ostracizing them. Their humility, warmth, and kindness unites them to face mayhem and create a little mischief together.
But a few other minor characters bewitched my interest a little bit more. No-Maj Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) runs a horrific crusade against witches and wizards. She takes advantage of impoverished children by invoking fear of evil and witchcraft to earn their trust and implement her beliefs. One of her children, a traumatized teenager Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), is secretly taken advantage of by a mysterious wizard (Colin Farrell). Morton's intimidating presence, alongside Farrell's dark intentions, creates quite a startling difference from Scamander's humorous escapades. As a trio, they effectively stand-out, especially Miller. Their scenes could've been a fascinating movie of it's own.
Like the Harry Potter films, the locations are almost characters themselves. The production splendidly swoops us into another dimension. Costume designer Colleen Atwood never fails to create beautiful wardrobes befitting everyone's personality. Veteran Harry Potter production designer Stuart Craig creates wonderful to disturbing landscapes with the dark Barebone house to the opulent Magical Congress of the United States, and Tina and Queenie's homely apartment. While there might be a bit of CGI explosion to cover Scamander's creatures, every tiny production element lends a great deal to how this era of magic looks and feels.
Unfortunately, the gamble to make this movie a prequel and give Scamander is his own adventure doesn't come without a few problems. Some of it exists merely in our Muggle world such as controversies over white-washing, Rowling's distortion of Native American legends, and news of Johnny Depp's casting. For the movie itself, Rowling creates intriguing characters but she doesn't fully flesh out the story. The bulk of the plot even reminded me of the super-disorganizedSuicide Squad. 'A band of misfits tracks down unjustifiable threats in the city, only to be thwarted by an unstoppable superpower who is manipulated by an unsuspecting antagonist.' The plot between the two is inherently the same, just a bit more fantastical for the latter.
Fantastic Beasts welcomes us back to the wizarding world, but its intricate details often contradict each other. This mostly stems from Rowling toying with allegory and segregation, but not firmly establishing them - either as obstacles that should come into play against Scamander or for the xenophobia she touches upon. One-half of the story centers on her rules of both societies, and the other half is a pure delightful escape. They often give the impression of being different movies instead of complimenting each other.
Out of everything, David Yates might've delivered one of his better directorial work for the Potter series, even if it has pacing issues. There's nothing not to love about Rowling's new band of misfits and villains. The only issue is that the movie tries to do its own thing, but allow her to drop hints for the future. Which even being fully aware that more movies are on the way, it's a slight shame this doesn't feel complete. As much as I'll probably revisit this spectacular world again in the future - inevitably, it is still Harry Potter - this tale struggled to be the spellbinding cinematic return I anticipated.