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‘Fantastic Beasts’ unleashes a so-so Harry Potter spinoff

Posted at 5:03 PM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-17 17:03:40-05

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” turns out to be a hyperbolic name for a pretty so-so movie — one with entertaining passages, but which mostly feels like a big-budget prequel to the better, more cohesive film that’s yet to come.

Of course, “Fantastic Beasts” actually is a prequel of sorts, plucked from the rib of the Harry Potter franchise, marking the first screenplay by J.K. Rowling. Working with veteran “Potter” director David Yates and starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, the author has delivered a handsome but disjointed introduction to Newt Scamander, a British wizard who travels the world in pursuit of magical creatures.

Awkward and shy in the way genius academics can be, Newt seems to come alive when he’s interacting with these CGI wonders, which he inadvertently unleashes on New York upon his arrival in 1926. Through a series of mix-ups, he’s aided in part by a local Muggle (Dan Fogler), who quickly becomes his wide-eyed, comic-relief sidekick, despite a law among the American wizardry that any “No-Maj” must instantly have his or her memory wiped (or “obliviated”) if exposed to the wizardly world.

But that’s just half the story, which takes its sweet time getting to the meat of the drama. The real threat involves a malevolent force that a local wizard cop, or auror (Colin Farrell), hopes to locate, release and control, although the logistics of all that, frankly, remain rather fuzzy.

Faster than you can say Dumbledore, Newt’s beasts, and the havoc they wreak around New York, produce several elaborate action sequences, and the visuals are both playful and dazzling. (It’s worth noting that while a lot of the beasts are cute, there’s plenty of darkness too, and some situations would likely be scary for younger Muggles.)

Nevertheless, “Fantastic Beasts” generally feels strongest in its quieter moments, including Newt’s sweet, tentative interactions with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who chafes at having been demoted from auror to a clerical role and bravely decides to help him.

Erecting a new movie franchise of this magnitude around “Fantastic Beasts” is certainly enterprising, gleaned from a textbook that Harry and the other Hogwarts students read. But that’s precisely the sort of digression in which a book can indulge that can become ungainly — as the film does for the first hour or so — when fashioned into a theatrical blockbuster. For that reason, while the audience spends a lot of time with Newt, we learn relatively little about him.

Given the pent-up hunger for “Harry Potter,” and perhaps greater demand for pure escapism, the movie should be a major holiday attraction, without rising to Harry’s heights. That’s still good news for Warner Bros., which, like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.

Still, “Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t consistently conjure a level of magic equal to its promise or anticipation. About the best that can be said about it, in fact, is having cracked open Newt’s book, there’s enough here to whet one’s appetite for whatever wonders might be found in the next chapter.

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens in the U.S. on November 18. It’s rated PG-13.