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Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them feels like two separate films.
One is a nostalgic, playful throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood that's much funnier than you expect it to be. While the other isn't much more than a constant reminder of the film's responsibilities to launch a brand new lucrative movie universe, especially in the wake of JK Rowling's revelation that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them will have four sequels.
The two never gel together, with the latter constantly interrupting the former's entertaining flow. There's just enough romance, whimsy, creativity and eye-catching visuals to enchant in Fantastic Beasts, but its flaws ultimately come close to ruining it all.
Set in both 1926 and the Harry Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who arrives in New York carrying a magical briefcase that's packed to the brim with an array of different creatures. But disaster strikes when No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) accidentally takes Newt's case and lets some of the creatures loose in the city.
Former Auror, which is basically a police officer, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) takes it upon herself to capture Newt, because his antics could lead to the exposure of the wizarding community. Especially since the fanatical Second Salemers, led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her adopted son Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) are intent on revealing and then eradicating wizards. At the same time the Director of Magical Security at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) becomes more and more suspicious of Tina and Newt's actions, too.
Fantastic Beasts is immediately boosted by the fact that it's led by Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything), who emanates a quaint, peculiar likeability that manages to pull you in as he makes Newt a combination of Steve Irwin, Indiana Jones, and Charlie Chaplin. One scene in particular, where we first see Newt Scamander inside his briefcase, makes you fall in love with the character, while there are numerous moments where Eddie Redmayne showcases a knack for physical comedy that you can't help but smile at.
Dan Fogler's wide-eyed joy as the No-Maj that's breathing in all of the wizarding wonderment is palpable, while Alison Sudol is bewitching as the perennially optimistic but still a little jaded Queenie. Unfortunately Katherine Waterston's Tina is too stuck-in-the-mud and protective to ever fully win you over, but there are enough hints -- especially in her final scene -- to suggest that she'll have shaken off this burden by the sequel.
Thanks to the continued presence of director David Yates (who directed the last four installments to the Harry Potter franchise) Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them begins with a sprightly confidence, while it's even a little indulgent as it revels in both the hustle and bustle of the New York setting, the charming period, and the special effects and animals the film has to showcase. Yates even embraces genres of the age. Fantastic Beasts delves into silent comedy and screwball terrain that's refreshing as Newt's antics spiral out of control and it feels like a remarkably self-contained story.
Yet despite the arresting visuals David Yates is unable to get to the jugular and build Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them to be truly spectacular. That's mostly down to Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them being waylaid by a villainous sub-plot that never fits. Whenever it leaves the free-spirited antics of Newt, Tina, and Queenie to provide a reminder of its foes the film immediately loses its sparkle and is just mundane.
Samantha Morton's scaremonger Mary Lou Barebone lacks any edge, Colin Farrell's Percival Graves is vaguely menacing but mostly just uncomfortably brooding, while Ezra Miller's performance as Credence Barebone is too cumbersome to ever feel sufficient. The biggest problem, though, is that they each feel more like placeholders, ones that will instantly be discarded when the larger threat of the franchise presents itself. Something that's more blatantly obvious since Johnny Depp has already been confirmed as Gellert Grindelwald.
Fantastic Beasts is also the perfect example of the pluses and pitfalls of modern cinema. While it's the latest recent tentpole film to forgo a genuinely intimidating villain for an overly CGI'd, underwhelmingly chaotic conclusion and a tease towards its sequels, it also shows how special effects can elevate and utterly captivate. The titular animals are inventive, resplendent and seamlessly integrated, while their endearing traits and personalities allow the Potter universe to expand and feel even richer.
When Newt Scamander and his pursuit of these creatures are at its forefront, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a joy to watch unfold. But it's ultimately nowhere near the sum of its parts, and while it provides a solid foundation to build upon its numerous positives just make its reversion to blockbuster type all the more disappointing.