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Family Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13        Length: 133 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 12+. This film takes place in the world of “Harry Potter,” but in New York City after World War I. Lots and lots of action sequences, including destroyed buildings, wand duels, a scene where a witch is almost executed in a vat of acid, and a few people die; some disturbing stuff, including the implied beating of a boy by his mother; some very lightly sexually themed jokes and bathroom humor; a few romantic subplots and one kiss; and a variety of beasts, some of which could be frightening, including one that looks like a neon bat and another that is a whirling pool of blackness.

The next franchise in the ‘Harry Potter’ universe kicks off with ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,’ which tries to combine a light-hearted heist with the rise of dark fascism. The combination doesn’t quite work, and the film doesn’t build enough stable ground.

By Roxana Hadadi

FantasticBeastsAndWhereToFindThem ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewThere are going to be five films in the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” spinoff world of the “Harry Potter” franchise, and you can tell. The initial “Fantastic Beasts” is less a story on its own and more like J.K. Rowling checking off a to-do list: introduce the next big bad, set up another story warning against the rise of fascism, produce some cute creatures, secure a self-effacing British hero. Things in “Fantastic Beasts” are moved around like pieces on a chess board, and that is because the film feels more strategic than organic.

“Fantastic Beasts” focuses on another corner in the magical world of “Harry Potter,” the seven books and eight films of which took place in the British wizarding school of Hogwarts beginning in the 1990s. This time around, we’re in New York City in the 1920s, following the adventures of one Newt Scamander, who in Harry Potter’s world was the author of the magical textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

At this point, though, Newt (Eddie Redmayne, of “Jupiter Ascending”) hasn’t quite written the book yet; instead, he’s ventured to New York City to secure another magical beast, but he’s totally unaware of how different the American magical community is from the British one. Tensions are heightened in the U.S. after the mysterious rise to power of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (another character people may remember from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and his subsequent disappearance, and the Magical Congress of the United States of America has strict rules about how witches and wizards should behave with humans: no interactions with No-Majs, no friendships, no marriages. They are determined to keep the peace by ensuring that humans don’t know they exist, especially because of the rise of groups like the Second Salemers, a fanatical religious group obsessed with the idea that witches are real and should be eliminated.

Into this scenario arrives Newt, with his magical suitcase of creatures. He wants to prove to other wizards that these creatures, including the shiny-obsessed Niffler and the twiggy Bowtruckles, should be protected and studied, but when some of them get loose in New York City, he finds himself on the wrong side of MACUSA. He ends up seized by agent Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), but MACUSA isn’t that concerned with Newt because a dark force has been attacking the city, destroying buildings and harming people. The Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, of “Winter’s Tale”) has more to worry about than just Newt, so Tina’s concerns fall by the wayside.

But these stories end up tangled together, and so Newt ends up working with Tina, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who can read minds, and Newt’s unlikely human friend Jacob (Dan Fogler, of “Free Birds”) to find and protect Newt’s creatures while also investigating what or who is responsible for the attacks. What they learn has deep implications not only for MACUSA, but for the wizarding world overall, for years to come.

Those “years to come” will probably be how the rest of the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise plays out, and as is a problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film feels particularly constrained because of the inevitability of many upcoming sequels. Nevertheless, Redmayne is a good choice to anchor all this. He does his twee, proper, charming British thing with Newt, showing us the depth of his care for his creatures when he engages in a hilariously strange mating ritual to coax a gigantic rhinoceros-looking beast back into his suitcase, and his call for protection of the vulnerable and tolerance for all will sound familiar to anyone who knows anything about J.K. Rowling.

Far less sketched out, though, is everyone else. Tina gets disappointingly shoved into love interest status; Farrell is seductively dark in his interactions with troubled informer Credence (Ezra Miller, of “Suicide Squad”), but otherwise his motivations as Graves don’t make much sense; and Carmen Ejogo as President Seraphina Picquery of MACUSA has better outfits than she does dialogue. Perhaps that’s because character arcs have to stretch out over future films, but still, there’s little of substance here for anyone who isn’t Newt.

Visually, the film is the same kind of uneven, with bright, detailed, strange creatures that we see only briefly, aside from the Niffler and Bowtruckle, and action sequences that are repetitive in their constant explosions. And overall, that’s the flaw of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” – that so much effort and detail is jam-packed into a film that can’t possibly do it all. “Harry Potter” fans will be pleased to see so many callbacks to the original franchise, but as a spinoff, “Fantastic Beasts” is a shaky start.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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