Prequels: What every fanboy and -girl thinks they want, until they get it. Take it from the Star Wars fans. We learned the hard way that exploring every little throwaway reference, every little nook and cranny of a fictional world may make fun online conversation but falls short when it comes to crafting an actual story around the fetishized minutiae.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them started as a throwaway reference in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. To Star Wars fans, this will seem ominously familiar. The Clone Wars started as a throwaway line 25 years before Attack of the Clones made us wish we knew less about that particular conflict.
But here's the thing about Harry Potter: It's responsible for more good movies than Star Wars. (And yes, I'm counting Revenge of the Sith as a good movie, which is a stretch, I know.) While George Lucas was flailing about on Naboo, Warner Bros. was cranking out one solid film of Rowling's hit fantasy book series after another. The first two, directed by Chris Columbus, were play-it-safe adaptations elevated by the most serendipitously great casting decisions of all times: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson as the lead trio Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger. These kids had instant chemistry, and by the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban fell into the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón in 2004, they fully inhabited their characters. Azkaban was the best of the eventual eight-film series, but even though subsequent Potter helmers Mike Newell and David Yates never equalled Cuarón's magic touch, they never failed to deliver well-made, entertaining movies.
Now, five years after director Yates brought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 to its bittersweet conclusion, Warner is going back to the well. A sizable chunk of this decade's film output has been an obsessive search on the part of producers for the Next Harry Potter, so it was inevitable that, eventually, enough capital would be mobilized to get Rowling back to the table. And that was what Hunger Games and Insurgent and all the other pretenders to the Young Adult throne lacked: Rowling's unreproducible talent. Her magical universe, co-existing just under the surface of our own, seems almost real enough to touch. But even more importantly, the values she subtly espouses through her work — friendship over rivalry, generosity over selfishness, inclusion over exclusion — are the best representation of the Enlightenment ideals in pop culture today, which is why it is so vital and fortunate that her books and films found a wide audience of impressionable kids. Harry Potter fandom gives me hope for the future.
The fandom will not be disappointed with Fantastic Beasts — at least, not too disappointed. Yates is back at the helm, but the Big Three actors are nowhere to be found. Instead, we get Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a renegade, wizard xenozoologist who carries around his bestiary in a suitcase that is much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Scamander arrives in New York City by steamer in 1926, but the Jazz Age Big Apple is different than muggle books record. There's an anti-witchcraft movement led by activist Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) advocating for a "Second Salem." When some of Scamander's precocious magical beasts escape and cause havoc in the streets, he attracts the attention of Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently demoted agent of the Magical Congress of the U.S.A. (MACUSA), responsible for maintaining the strict segregation between wizards and No-Maj, as muggles are known in the states. As Newt and Tina hunt down the wayward magical animals, a more sinister plot is slowly revealed involving MACUSA agent Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Second Salemer Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
Much about Fantastic Beasts works great — the special effects have never been better in the Potterverse, Redmayne is a compelling central presence, and the story is head-and-shoulders above anything else in the blockbuster world this year. But, like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, it suffers sorely from the missing chemistry at its core, revealing just how vital Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson were to the success of the earlier films. Waterston in particular seems lost and underwritten most of the time, rendering feeble what should be a slowly budding romance with Redmayne.
Warner Bros. will get their wish of another Harry Potter series, as there are currently four more films planned for the story of the American side of the magical world. If Fantastic Beasts accomplishes nothing else than killing off all of the insultingly pathetic Young Adult fiction adaptations, then it was money well spent.