Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them goes back ninety years into the past of the world of the Harry Potter novels. It takes place in New York, where a series of mysterious events have given rise to a movement that threatens to reveal the existence of wizards and go to war against them. In the middle of this mess, the wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in the States will a case full of magical creatures. Some are accidentally let loose, and he must recover them and fix all the mayhem they're causing. But this seemingly simple quest takes him into the heart of the growing conflict between wizards and non-wizards.
One could theoretically go into this movie without any knowledge about the Harry Potter franchise, but it probably wouldn't be as rewarding an experience. This whole film feels like one big reference, the story an expansion of bits and pieces of lore and history mentioned offhand in the main series. Taking it in a vacuum, the story is only mildly compelling. It mostly gets by on the charm of this world and its characters. The overarching narrative is mainly a series of red herrings that leads into a reveal that the film does not properly deal with.
The film is most entertaining outside of the main story, when it's just exploring the specifics of this magical setting. The suitcase and the wondrous world held within is the main attraction here. The film comes alive when it's made to bring all these strange creatures to life. Scamander's odd menagerie makes up the most compelling sequences in the movie, each magical beast bringing a new sense of wonder in a world already brimming with magic. Taking it all in as a larger piece, the movie seems to struggle with telling a new story within this setting.
In truth, the basic structure isn’t too different from the other Harry Potter stories, except for the fact that it doesn’t really have a central evil to focus on. The plot seems to drift between two or three potential villains at a time, never really giving any of them the space to establish the legitimacy of their threat. So when the movie reaches the climax, it all feels haphazardly put together. A big threat breaks out, but it’s just one big visual effect that doesn’t have the impact it’s clearly meant to have.
This may be a consequence of this film having to set up for future stories. By the very end, the only threat that is truly established isn’t really dealt with. We’re just getting to the real story, which will told in later installments in this franchise. To be fair, the bones of this series already feel kind of solid. They do have Eddie Redmayne in the lead role, providing what appears to be his version of the Doctor of Doctor Who. It’s a charming performance that is the complete opposite of what one would expect from a blockbuster hero. The film has a surplus of charm, the interactions between Katherine Waterston, Allison Studol and Dan Fogler consistently producing an affable reaction.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives more assured than the first Harry Potter movie did. It is already more visually interesting, and more prone to the kind of weirdness that made the later installments so distinct within the realm of the blockbuster. But it still hasn’t entirely found its footing. The film might too confident that viewers will give the film leeway for the promise of better future installments. And while the movie isn’t bad, the need to put things off for later makes it a good deal less magical.