Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an expansion of the Harry Potter universe, and a test: Can these new characters and story -- merely the opening salvo in a multi-film series, we're told -- measure up to the epic struggle of Harry and his friends against Lord Voldemort and his minions?
Split decision. Fantastic Beasts is often lovely to look at, at times even stirring, but there's very little to hold onto, story or character-wise.
The story follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a mopey klutz lugging around a suitcase that appears to be filled with exotic creatures in New York City in the 1920s. When his creatures start escaping from his bottomless suitcase, he winds up entangled with aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a onetime wizarding investigator, Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, they try to track down Newt's runaway beasts, while also steering clear of the Magical Congress of the United States of America and its security forces, led by the ruthless Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
What story there exists here is just an excuse on which to hang some effects-fueled standoffs and some chasing and running around -- which wouldn't be such a problem if the characters were in any way interesting or fun. Redmayne plays Newt with such baroque, quivering preciousness that much of the time he seems physically ill. Watching these characters, I was reminded in a bad way of the charisma of Rowling's original trio of young student wizards. These ones -- older, more troubled -- come off not so much as complex but as wan and dry.