Successful movie franchises never die. Not really. Capitalism dictates that if a series of movies makes your studio and your shareholders money, you’re going to make sure that you make more of those movies, even if the story has come to a logical end. The more movies, the more opportunities for boffo box office grosses, so it’s no surprise that the Harry Potter series made enough money for Warner Bros. over eight movies that there’s no way sleeping dogs were going to lie for too long, whether the creators liked it or not. The good news for Potter fanatics is that J.K. Rowling doesn’t seem particularly eager to let the world fade either, continuing to write short stories and providing the screenplay for the film that has resurrected the franchise on the silver screen, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We have learned, though, that not all reboots or reimaginings find the success of their predecessors. Whether it was the comically overlong and powerfully uninspired Hobbit trilogy that fell short of The Lord of the Rings, or Sony’s ill-fated attempt to keep the Spider-Man franchise in house by rebooting with Andrew Garfield before Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s corpses were cold, going back to the well often found it dry as a bone. It’s not always bad, though. Star Wars: The Force Awakens worked out pretty well, and the James Bond series has been alive and kicking longer than many of us have been on this planet. So with the release of Fantastic Beasts, we get to answer the question that must be considered every time a franchise rises from the dead: is it a Hobbit or is it actually worthy of our time?
Extrapolated from the book of same name released by Rowling in 2001 (itself extrapolated from a textbook in the Harry Potter series), the film takes place long before Potter strode the halls of Hogwarts. Shifting the setting from England to the United States, it follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he travels to New York in 1926 with a suitcase full of thoroughly illegal magical creatures in a quest to return one of his, well, fantastic beasts to its ancestral birthplace. The quest proves to be folly, as a series of blunders involving a bumbling No-Maj (American for Muggle, Potter-talk for non-magic folks) named Jacob (Dan Fogler) causes some of the creatures to escape his satchel, drawing the ire of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (helpfully acronymmed to MACUSA) and their President (Samantha Morton). Newt escapes the full force of MACUSA in part thanks to the help of a former Auror, Tina (Katherine Waterston), and her mind-reading roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). But MACUSA won’t give up that easily, sending their director of security, Graves (Colin Farrell) to bring them back for punishment. Meanwhile, an extremist sect of anti-magic crusaders led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and her troubled son Creedence (Ezra Miller) operates in the shadows with sinister goals.
That sounds like a lot of plot, probably because it is. And setting Fantastic Beasts both decades before the Potter series we know and love and shifting the location to the US means that the film can’t particularly rely on the seven books and eight movies of continuity that came before it, forcing the film to essentially start from scratch. The only real hooks into the later continuity come in the form of a few phrases here and there, the name of the film, and the specter of Gellert Grindelwald (this timeline’s Voldemort, basically) haunting the magical community. Instead, the film throws out new terms and concepts with reckless abandon, stuffing the script full of proper names and properer terms, turning dialogue into a word salad of exposition. This is Rowling’s first script, and it shows, with her skills as a novelist not entirely translating well into the screenplay format. Even more damaging than the clunky dialogue, though, is the utter ineffectuality of the lead.
Newt’s main character trait appears to be his Britishness, that sort of vaguely introverted foppish charm right in Redmayne’s wheelhouse. Beyond that, he offers nothing, a walking piece of plot more than the sort of character who could support a five movie franchise (yep. FIVE MOVIES). It doesn’t help that his female counterpart, Katherine Waterston’s Tina, is just as uninspiring, trying to make something out of her shell of a part and generally falling short of a performance that lights up the screen. The profound blandness of the two leads is a massive mountain for the film to try to overcome, and while it isn’t all bad on the character/performance department (both Fogler and Sudol are rather charming in their odd couple romance, and Farrell chews the scenery with sinister glee), such a flimsy foundation makes the attempt to build an entirely new wing of the franchise destined for disappointment. The return of David Yates (the sure-handed director of the last four Potter films) was likely to keep some continuity between the two series, but in practice it makes Fantastic Beasts feel more like an echo of what came before it than an exciting new story in a beloved universe. Add in a drab color palette and soulless computer generated scenery, and the whole thing just feels inconsequential.
The best metric for judging a franchise extender like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to determine whether it can stand on its own without the goodwill that came before it. If it succeeds, it’s a good thing regardless of what it represents in the overall story of the world, but if it fails, it is revealed as something more cynical, a cash grab designed to capitalize on that goodwill instead of reinforcing it. There’s nothing in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that justifies its existence, let alone four more films in the same timeline (a series of movies about Jacob and Queenie would be far more interesting at this point). It lacks the magic (yeah, yeah) and excitement of the original Potter films, and can’t even stand on its own as an adventure blockbuster with its overly complex, rushed plotting and thoroughly uninteresting lead characters. It’s a film with a giant built in fanbase that does nothing to justify it. This could have been something special, an opportunity to add shade and dimension to a beloved series of stories by opening it up to new settings. It’s possible it’ll get there. It’s got four more opportunities to try. But based on where things started, I can’t say I have a lot of faith it will get there.