A screenplay is quite a different creature than a novel, and it’s usually interesting to see an author attempt to bridge the gap. In the case of J.K. Rowling, the creative and commercial lure of her Harry Potter world has led her to trade books for scripts as she attempts to expand the fantasy in new directions. She goes back in time for a prequel (of sorts) in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which leaves behind a contemporary Hogwarts for a Roaring Twenties’ New York City. Instead of the castle in the countryside where a British boarding school narrative provided both structure and boundless whimsical visuals in which a hero’s journey could patiently develop, here she finds a bustling retro-urban America. It shares with her earlier stories a magical community hiding in plain sight, with many of the same delights: goblins and house elves and wizards and all the processes and politics thereof existing behind a magical barrier, mostly unbothered by the concerns of muggles. They’re about to find the boundaries transgressed, when well-meaning but bumbling zoologist wizard Newt Scamander arrives with a suitcase full of magical critters that get loose, threatening to wreak havoc and expose their community.
So it’s both a new world and an old one, with fresh sights and peoples and times to explore while maintaining some slight sense of comforting familiar continuity with the terrific film adaptations of Rowling’s Potters. It’s a difficult task, especially for a writer whose drive to endlessly add imaginative filigrees on her work is reflected in her books’ page counts and her years of additional hints and factoids since the series’ conclusion. I certainly don’t begrudge her desire to live in the world she created and tell us more about it. The problem is with time and space. A movie simply can’t expand and explain as much as she’s attempting here, especially when it leaves her two biggest writerly assets – overflowing incident and whimsical detail – foreshortened. The result is a story that’s at once incredibly simple and worldbuilding that’s bewilderingly complicated. Sure, it’s a spin-off. But it’s also starting over. Rowling is stuck in the in-between space. Beasts is too beholden to what came before to break out and be its own thing, but too different to drift off much affection for the Potter story.
Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, playing up a sheepish introversion as an unusually passive presence for this sort of big phantasmagoric production) arrives uncharacterized in a world we know little about. As the movie, directed by Potter alum David Yates, slowly pulls its character through a tour of magical New York we pick up bits and pieces about stateside wizard tics and troubles. Here the Ministry of Magic is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (or MACUSA) hidden Platform 9¾ style in the Woolworth Building. They’ve banned magical creatures and have a strict no-muggle-fraternizing policy, so they’re quite taken aback when Scamander not only loses his suitcase of creatures but has accidentally left it with a normal man (Dan Fogler). A low-level MACUSA agent (Katherine Waterson) tries to keep a lid on the situation, enlisting her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol) in assisting Scamander and his new muggle pal’s fetch quest for fantastic beasts of all shapes and sizes hiding out in a gleaming digital backlot period piece metropolis.
This is the simple part of the story, with Scamander anchoring a creature feature that finds its drive in a man determined to stop the beasts by saving them and understanding them instead of merely defeating and capturing them. There’s not much in the way of momentum or urgency to the task, as Rowling’s script has an unhurried amble. We spend long sequences simply looking at a CG menagerie, disappearing into his roomy suitcase zoo to look at googly-eyed monsters and ethereal mammals, or watching a bulbous glowing rhinoceros charging or an invisible monkey scampering. My favorite was a kleptomaniac platypus – he had the most personality of these fantasy animals – but a feathery dragon snake that shrinks or expands to fill available space is a runner up for its clever Miyazaki-like design. Still, it adds up to a whole lot of footage of actors looking with all the convincing awe they can muster at computer animation, punctuated by a lackadaisical, gently amusing bantering relationship between the underwritten leads. (To the extent they have personality it’s in whatever the performers are able to squeeze in between set pieces and exposition.)
Underneath this lighthearted, simple adventure with thin characters and slight sights simmers great, evocative tension and complicated conflicts. There’s brewing anti-witch conspiracy led by a wild-eyed zealot (Samantha Morton), whose adopted son (Ezra Miller) is torn between living up to her ideology or helping an authoritarian wizard detective (Colin Farrell). This rich, gripping side story is so fascinating I wished it were the center of the movie instead of a terrific subplot. It becomes the picture’s most fascinating addition to Rowling’s lore, growing into a possession tale arising out of twisted self-loathing, and with snaky tendrils into crooked politics as a slimy tycoon (Jon Voight) casts about for a scapegoat to fuel his electoral ambitions. That all this sits side-by-side with a sightseeing jaunt through capering creature hunts makes for a struggle with striking a tone. Even as the storylines converge, it feels like too much is held back or unspoken for fear of running out of material for proposed future sequels.
For this is a movie that’s intended to be the jumping off point for a new series, and as such falls into the trap of keeping its options open. There’s charm in the lovely, unusual grace notes – expressive slow motion, subtle (to the point of nearly undetectable) emotional tremors, soft humor, delicate slapstick. It’s not the typical blockbuster. It has personality, eccentricity in its construction while still beholden to the beats expected of studio spectacle, including the now inevitable huge CG cloud of muck throbbing in the sky for a finale. Yates, with many of the same crew members who so handsomely designed and decorated the Potters, dutifully conjures Rowling’s imagination, but in this case it can’t help but feel a little hesitant, a two-hour promise of more to come. If this flowers into a fresh new franchise, it’ll look in retrospect like a passable setup. For now, it’s merely a footnote, an afterthought to a far more satisfying story.