Muggles, we’re a long way from home. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is set in 1920s New York, an ocean away from Dumbledore and the genteel Brits who, before betraying you, at least serve a spot of tea on a pink, kitten-painted saucer. In this America — a noir with wands instead of pistols — the trenchcoat-clad agents at the Magical Congress of the United States of America, a.k.a. the MACUSA, simply zap.
Here, Muggles aren’t even called Muggles. They’re called “No-Majs,” as in no-magic, cross-Atlantic slang like trading “bum bag” for “fanny pack.” The wand-wavers’ names have changed, too. No-Maj Americans demonize witches, not wizards, with anti-spell extremists like Mary Lou (Samantha Morton, channeling Westboro Baptist brainwasher Fred Phelps) heading up the New Salem Philanthropic Society — you know, because Old Salem was such a success.
America doesn’t have more problems than England; it just has different ones. Europe has been polarized by the violent rebel Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), a disturbed idealist who wants to tear down the wall between magic and Muggles so that wizards can rule over both. MACUSA is terrified Grindelwald’s ideas will spread to the States, where segregation is even more strict. Witches aren’t even allowed to befriend normos, let alone spawn and create a half-blood prince.
Fantastic Beasts invites David Yates, director of The Deathly Hallows, to keep dwelling on dark magic. A black cloud is leveling Manhattan, brownstone by brownstone — imagine a sentient bomb, fueled by the same hopeless rage as an ISIS foot soldier who pushes a detonator. Offscreen, we hear a voice yell, “Someone oughta do something about it!” — the roaring twenties equivalent of a pointless tweet. MACUSA’s president (Carmen Ejogo) preaches calm, yet suspicion rules the day. America’s color-coded terrorism status is orange, meaning “severe unexplained activity.” No sooner has U.K. tourist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) landed than he’s arrested by an overachiever from the Wand Permits Office (Katherine Waterston). She takes him to MACUSA headquarters where Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) sizes up his potential threat. Graves doesn’t see a chipper Brit. Newt is a foreigner who may have been radicalized by Grindelwald during a trip to Sudan.
As for what we see in Newt, there isn’t much. He carries around a zoo-size briefcase packed with mythical animals that works like a clown car. Shimmy inside and suddenly there are whole worlds to explore, from snowy tundras to bamboo forests. It looks like a sanctuary — until we see one monster devour another, seconds before Newt solemnly says that humans are their greatest threats. (You sure about that?) Newt’s a wizard biologist, Dumbledore’s Darwinesque protégé, yet he treats his beasts as carelessly as trading cards. He’s a character in search of a coherent personality. He’s introverted and stubborn and admits that people find him annoying. Yet the film is convinced he’s adorable. Redmayne is the master of smiling to himself for no reason, ginger hair flopped over one eye, as though he’s not living in the moment but instead in the theater watching his ascension into a GIF.
Daniel Radcliffe had more depth when he was 11. Newt lacks soul. So, too, does his movie. The problem with aging up wizards into their mid-twenties (and older) is that they’ve outgrown wonder. The pleasures of the Potter films came from watching kids learn to control their world. We crammed into their classroom to hear how to levitate a book with our minds. When something incredible happened, we all gaped. Here, magicians silently point and shoot. You don’t hear a word of Rowling’s subliminal Latin spells (which I bet boosted SAT scores by at least 40 points).
As for visual wonders, the animators seem to have panicked, like they woke up late on the morning they had to turn in their sketches. Every creature is ordinary, with a twist. What if we took a rhino and gave it a lava horn? What if we took a lion and gave it a blowfish mane? What if we took a dung beetle and made it, um, really, really big? We’re meant to be outraged that these coldhearted, drab Americans have banned magical creatures from the country, but I found myself on the Yankees’ side. Newt does use animals as weapons — they’re much more dangerous than the apple I nearly smuggled in from Canada. All Newt’s pets do is destroy people’s apartments — usually poor people’s apartments — just a couple years before the Great Depression ruins the rest of their lives. The beasts who get the most screen time are a platypus-looking thief and a pandering, four-winged golden eagle to whom Newt gives the awe-inspiring name “Frank.”
During one sequence, the rampaging rhino-thing attempts to mount a civilian hippo, cowering in a corner of a park. As Newt heroically distracts it with his own burlesque tease, pawing the ground on all fours and shaking his ass in the air, the music can’t decide if we should be laughing or scared. It feels like it doesn’t have the energy to decide, let alone make us fall in love with its imagination. There’s such a gap between what we see on-screen (Newt animals bad!) and what the film expects us to believe (Newt animals good!) that I needed to Expelliarmus my migraine. At the climax of the film, one character gives an emotional speech about the sanctity of wizard law. Finally, I thought. Someone is making sense. Then they were put in handcuffs and the film about-faced again to a happy ending where terrorism is solved by memory-wiping No-Majs and erasing scary headlines so that newspapers only talk about the weather.
In this topsy-turvy flick, it seems only right that the most likable character is a No-Maj named Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a veteran who works at a canning factory but dreams of being a baker. Kowalski gets dragged into Newt’s chaos after an animal attack — surprise! — and, through him, the film gets the joy it needs. He’s enchanted by everything, especially Alison Sudol’s flirtatious young witch Queenie, a mind-reader who can see into the male brain and somehow still finds dudes delightful. Their infatuation is forbidden — in 1920s America, even two Muggles can’t marry if their skin’s a different color — but Kowalski and Queenie’s scenes together have actual magic. Yates has pledged to make four more films about Newt and his not-so-fantastic beasts. Can’t he scrap one and give Kowalski and Queenie a rom-com spin-off? Accio rewrite!