if you’re a publicly traded 21st-century media conglomerate, it’s fiscally irresponsible to leave profits on the table—especially if they’re Hogwarts-size profits. Warner Bros., which has raked in roughly $10 billion with its eight Harry Potter films, must have felt a sense of what-next dread after Deathly Hallows — Part 2 left theaters in 2011. Its golden goose was out of eggs. Or was it? In 2001, J.K. Rowling published a compendium of wizard-world apocrypha — her own version of a D&D Monster Manual — titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and cheekily authored by one Newt Scamander. The Dumbledore-approved text turned out to be an unexpected treat for Potter fans — and another potential windfall for the studio, which decided to spin that slim 128-page volume into no fewer than five feature films. The first has finally arrived in theaters, but if it plans on replicating Potter’s success, its sequels will have to step it up.
Eddie Redmayne stars as Newt, a shy and slightly daffy British magizoologist who travels the world collecting endangered magical creatures with Wonkaesque names like Bowtruckle and Nundu. As the film opens, it’s 1926 and Newt has come to New York, where he’s on the hunt for exotic new species. He carries a worn brown leather suitcase containing a menagerie of mischievous critters, like a platypus-looking Niffler — which escapes, leading to a frantic search that attracts the attention of an anti-witch zealot (Samantha Morton), a disgraced wizard agent (Katherine Waterston), and a hapless Muggle baker (Dan Fogler).
The film, directed by seasoned Potter pro David Yates, unspools like a kiddie version of the X-Men flicks. The xenophobic Muggle population (or No-Majs, as they’re called Stateside) live in rabid suspicion of the hidden world of hocus-pocus. And like those films, its phantasmagorical special effects are easy on the eyes. So why does Fantastic Beasts feel so oddly lifeless? Why doesn’t it cast more of a spell? First, there are the performances, which aside from Redmayne’s are surprisingly flat. And second, the thinness of the source material gives the whole film a slightly padded feeling. Rowling, who also wrote the script, nimbly lays out her world, but that world isn’t nearly as rich as the world of Hogwarts. And the villains (chief among them Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves) are stock cinematic baddies. Fantastic Beasts is two-plus hours of meandering eye candy that feels numbingly inconsequential. Maybe this is all necessary table-setting that will lead to bigger payoffs in chapters 2 through 5. I hope so. Because for a movie stuffed with so many weird and wondrous creatures, there isn’t nearly enough magic. B–