In an effort to find another bonanza to replace the completed “Harry Potter” franchise, the Warner Bros. studio has turned to none other than “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling, who has confected a series related to Harry’s magical world and designed to appeal to the same fan base. The “Fantastic Beasts” series has found success on the printed page—though not, it seems, the idolatrous frenzy that attended the “Potter” books—and this first installment of a projected five-movie sequence based on it should likewise prove lucrative. The question, however, remains: is it any good? The answer is that it’s fine for what it is, but a slightly misshapen piece in which the secondary characters are more immediately appealing than the central ones.
The story is actually a prequel introducing Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a shy but determined member of the Hogwarts Alumni Society who has made it his mission not only to catalogue the magical beasties that are outlawed in England but to protect them as well from threats of extinction. (The narrative obviously alludes to today’s varied “Save The” campaigns.) He arrives in New York in 1926 with a magical suitcase full of them, despite the fact that the U.S. is a hotbed of anti-magic sentiment, headed in the Big Apple by a self-righteous pseudo-sister, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who collects young acolytes like Credence (Ezra Miller) to serve in her proselytizing efforts. No wonder the state Mag government, headed by Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), has adopted a policy of remaining out of sight, employing a strong-arm investigator named Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to look into any incidents that might further exacerbate an already tense situation—like the apparent appearance of a particularly destructive force called an Obscurus, a black cloud that represents a sort of Freudian id explosion when a young witch or wizard’s powers are repressed, in one neighborhood. Yet he’s also conferring secretly with Credence, a fragile lad, about finding the child associated with the Obscurus.
Scamander has come to America with a single purpose in mind—to release one of the creatures, the huge Thunderbird, into the wilds of Arizona. But being a klutzy sort of fellow, he bumps into a genial WWI veteran, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a guy who’s tired of his job in a cannon factory and wants to open a bakery, and in the confusion they exchange suitcases. That’s why, when Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted clerk of the wizard government who spies the blundering Englishman, brings him before Seraphina and Graves, his case turns out to be filled with pastries.
Newt and Tina are destined to become a nervous romantic couple, of course, but the more interesting and entertaining duo is Kowalksi, who gets reluctantly drawn into Scamander’s efforts to take care of the animals and recover three that have escaped the case, and Goldstein’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), between whom sparks fly over the dinner table. Redmayne is a resourceful actor, but as written Newt is a fairly one-note character distinguished by little beyond his retiring personality, and that gives him little chance to shine (a sequence set at a zoo, where he does a weird impromptu dance in trying to recapture a big, hippo-like creature, is unfortunately a bust, more embarrassing than engaging); and as Tina Waterston is equally bland, though pretty with her Jean Simmons look.
Nor does Colin Farrell make much of the double-dealing Graves, whose actions must be understood against a vague backstory regarding a renegade wizard called Gellert Grindelwald, whom everyone is afraid of (the actor who will be playing him in future installments is revealed at the close, but won’t be here). Ejogo suffers from her wardrobe, which is so elaborate that it seems to impede her giving any kind of performance at all, and while Morton is okay as the nefarious Barebone, Miller—a truly promising young actor (and the new bigscreen Flash)–is pretty much wasted as the put-upon Credence. (A subplot about a powerful newspaper editor played by Jon Voight seems totally extraneous.)
That leaves Fogler and Sudol to bring some charm to the movie, and they do. Jacob’s just a big, gregarious lug, but Fogler makes him immensely likable, especially by comparison to what’s going on around him, and Sudol endows Queenie with a Judy Holliday quality that works wonders. There are times that you wish “Fantastic Beasts” were just about them.
Unfortunately it’s not, so what David Yates—working in the same dark mode he brought to the last films in the “Potter” sequence, emphasizes are the effects, which are predictably excellent from a visual standpoint even if they’re not always laid out with perfect coherence by the director, cinematographer Phulippe Rousselot and editor Mark Day. (The print screened for this review was not in 3D, so it’s unknown whether that format adds much.) Of particular note are the humorous episodes involving the niffler, a thieving little rodent that can amass great qualities of shiny things and evade capture with its speed and agility. On the other hand, a wand battle that comes at the close has too familiar a ring; it calls to mind the light saber face-offs from “Star Wars.” The score accompanying all the action is by James Newton Howard, who does his customary workmanlike job.
In sum, Potterites (or are they Potterheads?) will undoubtedly appreciate getting another fix of J.K. Rowling’s world of wizards and humans, and the promise of four more years of it to follow. Even they, however—and certainly those not addicted to the world she’s created—might find “Fantastic Beasts” a less than magical introduction to the new series.