It’s not easy to kick-start a franchise. The rare movie that makes it look easy, like The Force Awakens, only serves as proof of how hard it actually is. That film, which revived a cinematic universe that seemed moribund 10 years after the disastrous Star Wars prequels, nimbly balanced the dutifully familiar with the joy of the new. It placed us in a comfortable galaxy far, far away but surprised us with a new cast of characters whose charisma and vigor made viewers more excited about the future than the past.
The astronomical success of The Force Awakens sent the Star Wars franchise leapfrogging J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world on the box-office charts. (Both trail the Marvel universe, at 14 films, $4 billion, and counting.) Those rankings are likely to shift with the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which inaugurates a new pentology set in Harry Potter’s world but without Harry himself. But while it’s a decent table-setter and a welcome return to a magical world that many of us love dearly, it’s no Force Awakens, bogged down as it is by exposition, dull characters, and sludgy pacing. Rowling herself wrote the script, and it plays like a first screenplay about which few dared to deliver notes. And this is the first time that David Yates—who directed the final four movies in the Potter series—has been defeated while dueling his wizardly material.
The world it constructs, though, is fascinating and suggests great adventures ahead. A prediction and a ruling: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be the worst of the Fantastic Beasts films, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is almost good.
Part of the problem, unfortunately, is the fantastic beasts. There are just so many of them, and few beyond a coin-hoarding niffler have any personality. At times, the plot stands still so magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) can explain the qualities of a bowtruckle or a demiguise or whatever; these moments will appeal to completist 10-year-olds but feel deadly to everyone else. Beautifully designed and brought to life by Yates and his effects team, the beasts nonetheless feel arbitrary, tiny dei ex machina Newt can pull out of his magical suitcase at any moment to get himself out of a pickle.
At movie’s start, Newt steps off a steamship (why do wizards have to take steamships??) into a 1926 New York City that, he quickly learns, is riven with fear and mistrust. A mysterious force—described by one witness as a “dark wind with eyes”—is wreaking havoc across the city. No-maj (muggle) politicians are preaching discord and isolationism. And fanatical New Salemers are warning that witchcraft will destroy the lives of normal people.
Innocent Newt bears a suitcase full of the magical creatures he loves; when several of them escape, he teams up with a disgraced former magical investigator (Katherine Waterston) and a no-maj baker (Dan Fogler) to recapture them. Meanwhile, the director of magical security with the American wizarding government (Colin Farrell) is infiltrating the New Salemers, focusing on one troubled young man (Ezra Miller) who’s helping him ferret out a secret.
Oh and there’s a divisive senator! And a newspaperman! And a goblin who runs a speakeasy and talks with the voice of Ron Perlman! In E.M. Forster’s formulation, Fantastic Beasts is antic with story but doesn’t really have a plot. People get killed, beasts get Newtsplained, rugs get pulled, but little of it feels connected. Subsidiary characters gradually grow to admire Newt and even love him, but it’s never clear why.
Redmayne’s performance doesn’t make it easy. Newt is capable and brave but reticent to the point of silence. In what feels like an elementary screenwriting mistake, that’s a choice that makes comic sense in Newt’s first encounter with talkative palooka Fogler but that pays off less and less as the movie goes on. It’s painful to watch Redmayne tamp down his charisma so thoroughly.
And Yates, too, seems overwhelmed. He’s as sure as ever with his special effects, but simple conversational beats and banter seem beyond him. Jokes land with thuds; scenes drag on without end. One sequence, a meet-cute between Fogler’s no-maj and a flapper named Queenie (Alison Sudol), is excruciating, every emotion exaggerated, every magical effect double-underlined for emphasis.
But when the spells start flying, it’s great fun to be back in this world, even if a “dark wind with eyes” doesn’t make for the most photogenic opponent. It’s hard not to enjoy a movie that gives you so much: Samantha Morton in a brash American accent; a rampant erumpent chasing poor Dan Fogler; mentions of Dumbledores and Lestranges; a big character reveal at the end. And it’s likely the boring work that Fantastic Beasts has to do establishing its characters and the rules of the game will pay off in future movies. After all, it’s hard to kick-start a franchise. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, is nearly unwatchable—and that series turned out OK.