DATEWORTHY: YES! While its plot is as overstuffed as a Thanksgiving dinner, there’s plenty of fun magic to be found here in a film that will entertain all ages.
What’s a movie studio to do when it runs out of ideas in a film series that made $7.7 billion worldwide? Create a spin-off series that they hope will carry many of the original fans along with it.
That’s what Warner Bros. is attempting to do this weekend with the release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which is an offshoot of the eight-film “Harry Potter” series, following the misadventures of another magically-powered fellow named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). The idea is that Newt wrote a magic guidebook of the same name that Harry has previously studied, and that Newt is also a Hogwarts graduate who is beloved by Dumbledore. With fans having waited five years for more magical misadventures, it’s highly likely that this will be casting a spell at the box office as well.
Newt has sailed across the ocean to New York City in 1926, carrying a suitcase filled with magical creatures that are also hopelessly mischievous. Newt is sneaking the creatures back into the U.S. in order to set them free in their natural habitats here, but trouble soon explodes when he and a non-magic New Yorker named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) cross paths and Kowalski accidentally walks off with Newt’s suitcase.
Soon, the beasts – ranging from a comical platypus-like creature who keeps breaking into bank vaults and jewelry stores and eating all the gold it can find, to a giant glowing rhinoceros-style beast that wreaks havoc in the Central Park Zoo – are dashing through New York and destroying streets and buildings. But there’s a more malevolent force at hand, a fierce combination of wind and cloud and spectre, that’s tearing the city apart at even greater levels – and it’s emanating from a young girl with magic powers who must be found ASAP.
There’s far more to the plot, with Newt finding Kowalski and teaming up to save New York City together, Kowalski and Newt each finding romantic sparks with a pair of magically powered sisters, and a secret magical congress trying to order everyone around. It’s a lot of fun, for the most part, with much of it feeling like the first two “Night at the Museum” movies with a supernatural twist.
Yet, like Newt’s magical suitcase, “Fantastic Beasts” is ultimately overstuffed. With so many plot lines to juggle, the movie’s pacing is occasionally disjointed and while it’s an entertaining experience overall, some sequences drag too long and others feel rushed.
Redmayne makes a fun hero to watch, dressed like Dr. Who and bringing an incredulous spirit to his performance that makes him eminently relatable to the audience. He seems as surprised as anyone by the mayhem around him, and it’s refreshing to see him in a light role after his Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” and last year’s grating performance as the first man ever to receive gender reassignment surgery, in “The Danish Girl.”
But it’s Fogler as Kowalski who’s the movie’s MVP. Every moment he’s onscreen pops with comic energy, while his sad-sack everyman persona also makes a great person to root for romantically.
Surprisingly, “Fantastic” marks “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling’s first foray into actual screenwriting, and all things considered, she’s conceived a world that will be fun for multiple adventures to come. Teaming with David Yates, who helmed the last four “Potter” films, the plan is to create four more Newt Scamander movies over the next eight years.
There’s a deep well of acting talent eager to get in on the action here, with Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton and Katherine Waterston – all veteran performers of note – playing key roles. This bodes well for future magic in the sequels, particularly from a last-minute superstar whose reveal as a key villain marks both a surprise and a perfect casting at once.