They share no characters or settings; Harry’s nowhere to be seen, and Hogwarts has been left behind for New York City in the Roaring Twenties. The literal answer would be that Warner Bros.’ latest blockbuster-in-the-making branches off from Harry’s adventures with the backstory of a textbook he uses for a Care of Magical Creatures class he takes, like, one time. (Spinoffs can come from anywhere — isn’t the world a wondrous place?)
But the truest unifying element between the two is their shared sense of escapist amazement, the intention to immerse the reader in an infinitely detailed world that they can explore again and again. In this respect, the technically mighty Fantastic Beasts succeeds with great aplomb, taking viewers around tableaux bustling with CGI detail via swooping, elaborate crane shots. Viewers in search of nothing more than a portal back to the wizarding realm of endless possibility will be amply satisfied by the many flourishes of production design that clutter the wide shots. And it's the little things hinting at a world twice lost — not just that of magic, but of antiquated magic — that conjure some charm, smaller touches like self-click-clacking typewriters or outlandish costumes that convey both the period and milieu.
Fantastic Beasts, with its cracking action set pieces and commitment to dense world-building, will make for a marvelous theme park attraction someday. But as a movie, as a vessel for narrative and ideas enacted by recognizably human characters, it fails to tap into the same simple potency that Harry and Co. wielded from book one. Director David Yates constructs a thrill ride that can stand comparison with his towering adaptations of the later novels, and yet it’s Rowling that doesn’t hold up her end of the bargain, delivering a script with the nuance and complexity of, well, a thrill ride.
Fantastic Beasts (the fictional book, not the movie) was penned by one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, quieter and less intelligible than ever), a globetrotting zoologist spreading his message of humane treatment for creatures great and small as he conducts research for the tome. Newt’s a slippery sort of character, difficult to describe due to his total lack of distinguishing or otherwise memorable characteristics. He’s a little like Indiana Jones, but without the rakish charisma. He’s a bit like Q from the James Bond franchise, but with the role of hero awkwardly foisted on him. He’s a bit like all the other characters Eddie Redmayne has played (save his howling alien king in Jupiter Ascending), in that he reads his lines with the vitality of a leaf clinging to a tree. Mostly, however, he’s like not much of anything, barely present in his own story.
And just as Rowling’s novels compensated for Harry’s vacuum of personality by making Ron and Hermione more compelling characters, so too does Rowling piece together a pair worth taking an interest in for Fantastic Beasts. Scamander’s busted suitcase lets a menagerie of enchanted fauna loose in the Big Apple, and his frantic efforts to retrieve them all before the magical five-oh realize what he’s done acquaint Newt with the no-maj (that’s American for "muggle") Jacob Kowalski, played sweetly and earnestly by Dan Fogler. He, somehow, is the real hero in this faint semblance of a story. He’s our audience surrogate, sharing our gape-mouthed astonishment at the hidden universe of witchcraft and wizardry as he teams with Newt to retrieve the wayward monsters. He’s got a recognizable arc and interior life, hoping to escape the factory job he had to take after returning from World War I by opening up a bakery. And he’s on romance duty as well, falling hard for telepathic flapper Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Queenie enters the story as the sister of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a desk jockey at the magic FBI who tackles Newt’s case off the books, and the other worthwhile character in the mix. Though Rowling doesn’t give Waterston much more to work with than the vague outline of "gal with moxie," the actress makes an amusing mode of her constant exasperation with Newt. She brings a spark of life to the scenes they share together, and though they have exactly zero chemistry, the script has the mercy not to graft a romance onto the two of them.
She assists Newt as they contend with threats on two sides: a group of religious fanatics called the Second Salemers intent on destroying the wizards and witches lurking among the population, and a disturbingly intense Auror (Colin Farrell) on their tails who also harbors a dark secret. The antagonists act as the conduit through which Rowling shoves misshapen metaphors intended to convey some facile commentary on present events. The vague tensions between the human and wizarding communities can be easily contoured to fit whatever issue you like, for one. But even more half-baked is a subplot involving bowl-cut-sporting Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a Second Salemer and waste of a perfectly good gay porn name. He’s searching for a child that refrains from "coming out" as a wizard for fear of judgement from peers, and whose essence of denial manifests as a whirling torrent of pure destruction that levels city blocks at a time. The furious cloud of wreckage is weightless; the allegory is leaden.
Rowling’s adventures with Harry were never exemplars of subtlety, but at least she knew how to string a basic Campbellian hero’s journey together and hit the beats for all they’re worth. Fantastic Beasts feels misshapen and inessential by comparison, a series of events with plenty of digital spectacle but no larger meaning played out by thinly sketched characters. If the basic necessity of the film has started to grow unclear, note that the plans for a sequel were set in place before the public saw a single frame, and the mercenary quality of the larger enterprise comes into focus. Yates, Rowling, Warner Bros., the American moviegoing public — we’re all subject to a force greater than magic or friendship or believing in yourself or whatever the prevailing theme of this two-hour-plus integrated brand vertical might be. The most powerful spell of all? Accio more money!