- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
New characters operating in a fictional universe the ins and outs of which we thought we knew; magic and combat working much more efficiently than we’ve seen them before; new cities and settings overstuffed with CGI buildings and creatures. … It is hard to watch “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and not think of “The Phantom Menace” (with better dialogue).
A prequel to the “Harry Potter” stories set in 1926 New York, “Fantastic Beasts”-the-movie is extrapolated from a book of the same name that Potter and his pals run into at Hogwarts written by a wizard named Newt Scamander; a real-world paper version was published in 2001. The movie tells us one of the stories about the writing of said book.
Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, doing that head-half-tilted and looking-up-from-under-his-eyebrows thing someone clearly once told him was cute) is a strange man, a taxonomer of magical creatures who arrives in New York for a brief stop before continuing his journey across the United States.
A former Auror named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, weirdly miscast) finds Scamander and hauls him in to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) for failing to announce his presence (or something).
Add in one charmingly goofy Muggle named Kowalski (good job, Dan Fogler), Tina’s zany sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a classic, screwball comedy briefcase mix-up and suddenly fantastic beasts are taking over New York, which is a place we learn is far less progressive than one would hope.
Indeed, hardcore Potter nerds will enjoy the world-building that goes into “Fantastic Beasts.” Unlike the kids in “Harry Potter” who are just learning to use their powers, everyone here is a pro-grade wizard. They point their wands and stuff happens, they teleport without a second thought, they read minds at will.
And yes, England finds America’s wizarding community a bit backwards. We have a habit of killing our magical creatures, you see, rather than repatriating a particularly large one to Arizona, as Scamander intends for one of his beasts. And we have rather draconian laws against intermarrying with Muggles (which are called “No-Majes” in the States, short for “non-magic,” because we are nothing if not pragmatic with our language.)
There’s even an anti-magic group calling itself the Second-Salemers, headed up by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), dedicated to the exposure and eradication of witches, which seems … off. Wait, don’t wizards go out of their way to make sure Muggles never know of them? (Eh, don’t think too hard about that one.)
Then there’s Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, complete with lawful evil haircut), head of MACUSA, who has kind of had it with all these No-Majes, quite frankly.
Even with a script by J. K .Rowling herself, veteran “Potter” helmer David Yates can’t quite recapture the wonder, charm or emotional scope of the original series.
Which he wasn’t obligated to, of course, but when this much money is on screen ($180 million, reportedly), one expects some of it to go into, say, coherent plotting, not just endless CGI eye-candy — a giant smog monster thing here, a thieving platypus there.
And then, as the big bad is revealed, it dawns on you that the disease that has plagued every superhero movie of recent times has come to the Potter-verse: “Fantastic Beasts,” all two hours-plus of it, was mostly setup for the next spate of movies.
Ah, well. I wonder if “Attack of the Clones” will be better.