The global phenomenon that was Harry Potter concluded in 2011 with the final installment in the beloved franchise. Since then, Warner Bros. has struggled to find a sustainable, money making series. The DC Comics universe has been very shaky thus far and the studio needed another cash cow. So, they went back to what made them money recently, the Potter world. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, a textbook in the Harry Potter lore, has been adapted by WB and author J.K. Rowling. Many of the Potter fans have been eagerly anticipating a return to this world. With this movie, they get exactly that. However, it may leave some disappointed. While it is a fun and visually exciting film, it never really captures the magic of the original Harry Potter series. The film was no doubt created with some care. Yet, the exhilaration and sense of wonder created by the Potter series is missing from this one. It undoubtedly builds upon the rich mythology of the world itself. But ultimately, Fantastic Beasts, albeit engaging and not a complete misfire, is never totally satisfying in the way we want it to be.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is directed by David Yates, who helmed four of the Harry Potter films. The film stars Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne as magizoologist Newt Scamander and follows his travels to America. When a bevy of magical creatures goes missing from his case, Newt sets out to find them with the help of a man named Jacob who is no-maj (American term for muggle, or non magic being if you’re not familiar with the universe). Newt discovers there is ultimately something more sinister at work in New York than just his creatures being on the loose. The film also stars Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Jon Voight, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller and Carmen Ejogo.

Yates is very familiar with this universe. After directing the last four Harry Potter films, it seemed like the right choice to bring him into the fold. This film is well crafted and it does feel like a Harry Potter film most of the time. There are the elements of magic we’ve come to know and love like self washing dishes. The film does a good job moving the Harry Potter mythology forward and gives a better and interesting look at the wizarding world. Yates does an admirable job of building this world for the installments to come.

The film plays out like a pilot episode of a television series. There is a lot of set up in here and it carefully builds up this world. By the films end, we have a good idea where this series is going, and that’s a good thing. J.K. Rowling’s screenplay is a bit sloppy at times. I will cut her a bit of slack here since I’m sure it is a tough transition from writing a book to writing a screenplay.

The real problem is that Newt isn’t an interesting character. In fact, he is quite boring. In the films over long run time, we are inundated with his quirky timidness. But it becomes tiresome after a while. I will admit I’m not familiar with the Newt Scamander character, so I don’t know if I’m off base here. I just didn’t find that I really cared about his character all that much. What makes Harry Potter so great is the relationship the audience has with the characters. They are relatable. That is not to say Newt isn’t, and some may even find a connection to him. I don’t see an adult audience really identifying with this character.

Katherine Waterston’s part of Tina is rather bland as well. Newt and Tina are perfect for each other. It is Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol (Jacob and Queenie) who have the best chemistry in the film. They steal the show in many ways with fun and sometimes corny dynamic. But it works for the entire film. I did quite enjoy Colin Farrell in this film as well. He delivers a solidly nuanced performance.

Fantastic Beasts altogether is a little too by the numbers to really set itself apart from the previous Potter films. It should strive to be different, because it is. That being said, there is a little too much fan service in this film. Too often, connections are shoehorned in to Hogwarts and Dumbledore. It also has frequent recalls to the original and now famous Harry Potter score. Most of the fans of this film will be Harry Potter lovers. You don’t need to stress that connection. In some respects, Warner Bros. marketing for the film maybe should have covered that a bit more. At the same time, Potter is universally loved. A high majority of this films audience will know what’s happening. I’m not convinced that’s the case with someone who has never seen the original series or read the books.

Visually the film hits the mark. We’ve all been spoiled by the visual effects of this years The Jungle Book. The CGI creatures in this film are not up to that level but they are solid. The production design gives us a good sense of time and place. It feels authentic to the period.

There is an intriguing future ahead for this franchise. Warner Bros. needs a hit, and they’ll get a nice box office return here. Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a missed opportunity in some regards. It is an enjoyable blockbuster. More so than some of the films that came out in the traditional summer big budget season. But this is formulaic, fan service film making. It neither enthralls nor disappoints. It lands somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a genuinely entertaining addition to the Potter pantheon that just doesn’t quite match the euphoria of its predecessors.

7.5/10

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