You can't go back to Hogwarts again, obviously—it ran out of books. But the newly devised American branch of the Harry Potter wizarding world is a feeble substitute. For one thing, there's no Harry (or Hermione, or Ron)—no children at all, in fact, unless you count one little girl who's basically a red herring. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the opening installment of a projected five-film franchise, is a good looking movie, with lots of Dickensian grit and gleaming Art Deco interiors; and its digital effects are unusually well-integrated. But the story is thin, and its characters short on the charm that distinguished the Potter series. The Beasts pictures will probably improve as they go along, but this is a weak kickoff.
It's the first Potter-world movie not to be based on a book by J.K. Rowling. Instead, Rowling wrote this story directly for the screen (it's her first script). Unfortunately, the result is muddled, and director David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films, hasn't been able to clarify things. (He may be more successful with the next four pictures, which he's also onboard to direct.)
The story is set in 1926, when we see English "magizoologist" Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former Hogwarts student (and soon-to-be author of a book that will be familiar to Potter adepts), arriving in New York City after a year-long expedition spent searching out magical beasts around the world. He has collected many of these creatures, and being magical, they all fit snugly into a scuffed leather case he's carrying.
Newt immediately draws the attention of Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, of Steve Jobs). Tina is a defrocked Auror—a hunter of evil wizards—who's trying to get back into the good graces of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) by busting a major miscreant, which Newt, with his mysterious carrying case, gives every indication of being. Newt is unaware that Tina is stalking him, because he's so caught up in the strange goings-on in New York. An epidemic of dark magic in Europe, fomented by renegade anti-Muggle wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, briefly seen at the end of the picture), has jumped the pond and is now taking over Manhattan. This has provoked a vitriolic anti-wizard movement whose most visible proponent is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who runs a grim orphanage in the city and preaches the necessity of a "Second Salem" reckoning out on the street. ("Witches live among us!" she cries.)
Newt is puzzled by all this. In Britain, the Ministry of Magic has a cooperative relationship with the Muggle world. In this country, where Muggles are known by the ungainly name No-Majs, MACUSA enforces a strict segregation, overseen by dour security chief Percival Graves (Colin Farrell at full glower in a dramatic cloak-like overcoat). So it bodes ill when Newt finds himself inadvertently involved with a No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (likable Dan Fogler), with whom he sets out in search of some creatures that have escaped from his case. Before long, these two, reluctantly accompanied by Tina and more happily by her cheery, mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, of Dig), run afoul of the deeply disapproving MACUSA. Many magical creatures are met (some of a merch-ready cuteness), and much top-shelf CGI (including a requisite metropolis-trashing) is unleashed.
The movie's problems begin with its star. Redmayne plays Newt with a muffled delivery that's sometimes hard to understand, and he wears one expression throughout the picture—a look of bashful dweebiness that's uninteresting to begin with and grows more so as the story proceeds. And Waterson—like Redmayne, a gifted actor—is given very little room to maneuver within the confines of her fussy character. Sudol is far more personable as Queenie—a bit of a ditz with a large heart. And Ezra Miller, playing one of Mary Lou's miserable wards (even his rough-hacked haircut seems unhappy), has a haunted presence not entirely unlike that of the dark Tom Marvolo Riddle in the second Potter film.
The movie's liveliest character is a goblin bar owner played by Ron Perlman, who has been digitally reduced to a barrel-shaped wisecracker, and who expresses himself in the cadences of a Port of New York longshoreman. ("So ya got a case fulla mon-stahs, huh?") Perlman is only around for one scene, but it's a funny one, and we miss him the moment it's over.
There are some dazzling CGI scenes (in one of the best, Queenie assembles a strudel in the air over a kitchen table.) And for admirers of social uplift, the story is of course larded with Rowling's usual message of loving tolerance for misunderstood outsiders. It's most resonant moment, however, is a veiled allusion to the frustration of closeted gays, in which we see one character huddled closely with a young man in a dank alley, hissing, "We've lived in the shadows for too long."
None of the movie's flaws are likely to be deal-killers for Potter fans (the audience at the screening I attended cheered at the end). But it'd be nice to see them more fully served next time out.