It hasn’t been that long since we last visited the wizarding world of Harry Potter. When “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” brought closure to the on-screen journey in 2011, amusement parks, sanctioned plays, digital publications and more kept the spirit of Hogwarts burning inside the hearts of fans everywhere. It’s not hard to see why, either. In the age of persistent nostalgia, Potter remains a bright, warm fixture of comfort, excitement and bedazzlement for audiences of all ages. But more than anything else, it allowed a generation of young moviegoers the opportunity to quite literally grow up with the main characters. Move over “Boyhood,” because J.K. Rowling’s treasured creation invited children to embark on an extensive ten-year journey, where they wouldn’t feel alone in changing schools, experiencing puberty, sharing budding romances and/or unraveling the mysteries of the unknown. It was a magical series, in more ways than one, and the type of big screen sorcery that won’t easily be recreated again. Not even by the creators of Harry Potter himself, though that’s not to say “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them,” the prequel/spin-off to the beloved franchise, isn’t a valiant effort in multiple respects.
Placing us in a time before Potter was even conceived, in a land he wouldn’t know, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” journeys to 1920s New York City where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a wizard expelled from Hogwarts for endangering human lives with some beasts, sets out to make a new life for himself in a new country. But things in America aren’t exactly how they are in Britain, and that’s true in sorcery circles as well. For instance, a Muggle is instead a No-Maj (pronounced “no madge”), and the lurking threat isn’t He Who Shall Not Be Named but rather the often-mentioned Gellart Grindelwald, a mysterious figure imposing havoc and destruction within the confined world of wizards. Whether in the UK or the US, though, it’s always imperative that no human — be it Muggle or No-Maj — knows the magical secrets lurking beneath their noses, but that’s not always easy when Newt’s rambunctious suitcase holds tons of mythical creatures vying to spill out of their leathered entrapment.
It’s through a mishap that Newt unintentionally introduces Jacob Kowalkski (Dan Fogler), a mustachioed, down-on-his-luck WWI veteran hoping to live out the American Dream selling his tasty pastries, to the creatures usually guarded by his side. In the midst of “exterminating” him, however, Jacob accidentally escapes with Newt’s fantastical baggage held in hand. The incident is witnessed by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a Federal Wand Permit Officer who decides to take Newt in for the careless use of his appointed powers, but in the midst of all this, Jacob starts to unleash a wild variety of peculiar pets onto the world.
The plot is already somewhat busy, fussy and convoluted, and that’s without mentioning the roles Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight and Carmen Ejogo play within the film. Directed by David Yates (“Harry Potter 5-8”), “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” hopes, at least on Warner Bros.’ behalf, to continue expanding and commercializing the best-selling book/film franchise for all it’s worth. In that sense, you can’t help but feel that this ninth movie in the series — the first not to feature the once-titular character — may perhaps be more of a financial exercise than a necessary extension of the story. It lacks the same urgency, intimacy, and ongoing mystery that kept the original movies engaging, suspenseful and richly compelling, and Yates and Rowling often have trouble juggling all these new characters, working them around their new settings and laying the foundation for the four planned sequels that lay ahead. But as a world-building exercise, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ often succeeds. It’s charming, playful and welcoming in ways these movies haven’t been since the first two installments, and the patchiness of the plot is often forgiven because these characters are likable, rather affable, and well-cast.
Yet, for as much fun as the first half of the film can be when it’s simply reintroducing us into this not-necessarily-forgotten world of wizardry, the second half is when ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is at odds with itself, trying to push the villain’s story, incorporate the sinister schemes dispelling doom for our main protagonists, all while still trying to let us get to know these new characters. You can knock Chris Columbus all you want, but this all felt much more natural and evenly-handled in 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Perhaps the burden of making both the blockbuster prequel and this year’s woebegotten “The Legend of Tarzan” became too much for Yates. But even that doesn’t excuse the messiness of Miller’s Credence and his motivation, for instance, nor does that excuse the general exhaustion and tedium that washes over you as the story keeps adding element after element to the proceedings, in an effort to pack in everything for the big trip coming down the road.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a lot like returning back home after a brief spell. Things are different, but there’s a sense of sameness that’s both inviting and off-putting. It doesn’t feel as fresh as it once did, and we don’t feel like we know these characters quite as fondly as we do Harry, Hermione or Ron, even though we’re open to getting acquainted. There’s likely never going to be another film series like “Harry Potter.” At least, not for my generation. The magic in those films was so specific, so radiant, so easily becoming. Yates’ newest inclusion to the series isn’t quite as warmly felt or lovingly sewn, but it still finds ways to keep you dazzled under its otherworldly enchantment. It’s not quite fantastic, but there’s still power left in its wand. [B-]