At what point does one look at a blatant cash grab and say, "You know what? I don't really mind"?
Such is the case with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a mostly enjoyable romp which returns fans of the wildly successful Harry Potter franchise back to the Wizarding World, albeit 70 years before 'The Boy Who Lived' was actually alive.
If we're being honest, it's the return that makes the trip worth it in the first place. Author J.K. Rowling (who is also credited with Fantastic Beasts' script), created such a dense world for use as backstory in her original series that it makes sense, up to a point, that audiences clamoring for all things Potter would line right up for more stories from a world barely explored.
It was hard not to be at least a little cynical when it was announced before the release of Fantastic Beasts that the first film, detailing the adventures of future noted Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), was the first in a series of five new films, all to be directed by veteran Potter director David Yates (arguably the least imaginative of the Potter helmers). That said, once the curtain rises, and we get a glimpse of a 1920's New York City as full as wizards and witches as Britain, the magic feels fresh again, and very welcome as we embark on a new set of fantastical adventures featuring characters only mentioned before in passing.
However, what feels like a good thing in reintroducing this world, which for the first time includes America, there is an immediate drawback in that it's clear early on that this is mostly a teaser film for things to come.
When Scamander arrives in New York, he brings with him a suitcase, which unbeknownst to others, is home to a myriad of magical creatures, a few of which almost immediately find a way to escape. This runs him afoul of Porpetina 'Tina' Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror kicked out of the service for standing up to Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). While the initial creature chase and interaction with Tina sets up some cutesy scenes which manage to grab a few chuckles, it feels mostly empty outside of utilizing CGI that honestly could've been a little better.
A new concept that serves as the backbone of the story, but is woefully underused, are the Second Salemers, led by Barebone, a muggle, or 'No-Maj' as they are known in America preach about the existence of witches and wizards and how they should be hunted down. While magic hatred in the original series was kept pretty much to Petunia Dursley, here we have a level of intolerance towards something different that resonates rather well in today's atmosphere. It's just a shame that the idea, and the use of Barebone as a more long-term antagonist, is pretty much snuffed out and underutilized.
To Rowling's credit, however, is her use of intolerance as an overall theme in Fantastic Beasts. Part of the reason Scamander became a Magizoologist is due to the indifference and abuse of magical creatures by the wizarding world. By extension, the wizarding world mostly fears the No-Maj/Muggles because their fear and past abuse. Young Credence Barebone (a creepy and sympathetic Ezra Miller) suffers abuse at the hands of his adoptive mother Mary Lou, and so the cycle turns.
Rowling succeeds in creating this landscape of hatred and fear, but also refuses to go too deeply into it, which for a franchise aimed at children is understandable to a point, choosing to highlight much lighter moments, at the peril of a wholly coherent or effective narrative. Granted, if Rowling were to truly delve into these sorts of implications, it might leave children with more than a couple nightmare, even though she rarely shies away from such themes in her written work.
This also goes towards the antagonists, who come off rather light, with little to no depth behind them. We've already explained how Barebone was misused as an antagonist, and the same must be said of head MACUSA auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who isn't nearly as defined as a villain as the marketing might lead you to believe. There's a reason for this non-committal nature, even if there are some blatant clues peppered throughout the film that serve as a dead giveaway in a way that simply shouldn't.
As for giveaways, Johnny Depp's cameo near the end of the film feels like it belongs more in an episode of Scooby-Doo than in a Potterverse film.
And while some roles do feel undercooked, Dan Fogler leaves a sizable impression as Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj who is thrust into events largely by mistake, but manages to not only serve as the true heart of the film, but also as an unlikely love interest for Tina's mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Fogler is probably the most game of all the actors, and without him, Fantastic Beasts threatens to teeter on the verge of disappointment.
Despite that, the familiar sights, sounds and names manage to be enough to happily immerse viewers into Scamander's world, and what separates Fantastic Beasts from Potter is that instead of seeing audiences being introduced to a world through the eyes of a boy who also is seeing that world for the very first time, we're treated to far more experienced and established wizards and witches, which is fitting as the audience is just as experienced, dispensing the need for expositions and overexplaining every little spell and plot device.
Rowling trusts that the audience knows her world, and while in other situations, this would probably sell the script a bit short, here it feels unpatronizing, while also allowing us to enjoy the world we've grown to love over the years.
When it's all said and done, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has enough of the good stuff to be a success on its own while giving just enough of a reason (more than enough, really) to get in line for future installments. What the film lacks in execution, it more than makes up for in charm, and sometimes just a little of the old magic is enough to get audiences by.