In a lot of ways, Fantastic Beasts (including its four sequels) is the new The Hobbit. Not only does the series serve as a prequel to the bigger story of The Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter, but stretching an already-thin book into a multiple-film tale causes inescapable problems.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film series suffered from trying too hard to compensate with visual effects, desperately trying to obfuscate its narrative deficiencies. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would likely suffer the same fate if not for one powerful advantage: one of the most talented and impressive casts of any movie this year.
J.K. Rowling’s new story begins in 1926, with “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York City with nothing but a normal-looking suitcase. He’s just finished a global collection of various magical creatures and beasts, all of which are currently inside his magical luggage. (He has to switch the case to “muggle-worthy” when going through Customs.)
All the wear and tear from his trek around the world unfortunately leads to a few creatures escaping and running loose in NYC — made all the more convenient by the accidental switching of his case with that of Jacob Kowalski, a WWI veteran with a dream of opening a bakery of no awareness of wizards or magic.
Just as the England of Rowling’s world has the Ministry of Magic, her America has MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America). Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a demoted auror at MACUSA who arrests Scamander when one of his creatures gets loose in a bank.
Newt and Tina set off to find Jacob and — with the help of Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) — try to find the fantastic beasts now running loose in the streets of New York.
Meanwhile, the nation is being terrorized by the dangerous Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard in favour of rising against the muggles of the world and making them serve wizards instead of staying subservient and living in the shadows.
Several other important characters played by the likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman only add to the impressive call sheet of actors bringing life to the movie from Rowling and David Yates (director of Harry Potters 5-8).
Like Jackson’s directorial work on The Hobbit, Yates’ work here feels mostly familiar. While Fantastic Beasts may be directed in the same, indefinably British way the Harry Potter movies were, it feels completely fresh, thanks to the work of cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (2009’s Sherlock Holmes, The Nice Guys).
The whole enterprise, thanks in large part to Rousselot’s more energetic camerawork, feels more American than British, which allows Rowling’s imagination to unleash itself with a wholly different energy than the Harry Potter movies.
Fresh off his award-winning performances in The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Scamander. His cloaks his performance in the kind of mumbly, introverted behaviour afforded to the more amusingly odd roles of Johnny Depp, which makes for a refreshingly different protagonist than typically wields Rowling’s wands.
Katherine Waterston — a dead ringer here for a mid-‘90s Maura Tierney — is a wonderful foil for Scamander, spending most of the movie pulling in opposite directions from him despite the chemistry audiences can see between the characters from their first scene together.
The breakout performer, though, is Fogler as the lovable Jacob. While Fogler has flirted with fame before in movies the likes of Balls of Fury and Good Luck Chuck, his good-natured, measured performance as the baker who finds himself caught in the middle of Scamander’s wizardly adventure. Expect Fantastic Beasts to finally do for Fogler what Frozen did for Josh Gad.
The major issues with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are those of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. When expanding slim source material across multiple movies, the first chapter ends up being mostly exposition and set-up.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stands well enough on its own, but is undeniably built with the foreknowledge parts 2 through 5 are still to come. As much as that leaves the movie with a climax mostly irrelevant to the narrative at large, it does set the stage well for a sequel that can do even more now that the introductions are out of the way.