For a movie based on a fictional encyclopedia, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is anything but tedious. Set in 1920s New York, the J.K. Rowling-penned film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an English adventurer and magical zoologist. Moments after stepping off the boat in America, Scamander is swept up in a whirlwind of magical chaos—accidentally swapping identical suitcases, running into a crowd of New Salem fanatics who want to kill all witches, and exploring the American wizard world that we never got to see in the original Harry Potter series.
This relocation gives us a fascinating glimpse of the wider mythology and history in Rowling’s universe, but it ultimately fails to conjure up the magic of its predecessor. The film’s first hour revolves around Scamander dashing about New York, chasing down mischievous creatures and sucking them into his magical suitcase—all of which makes it feel like another quirky Ghostbustersreboot. Add in some unimpressive sequences showcasing all the beasts in his menagerie (for a movie with a $180 million budget, Fantastic Beasts has pretty mediocre animation, not to mention a few scenes with out-of-focus cinematography) and you realize you’re in for yet another run-of-the-mill expensive blockbuster with nothing much to do but set up fake-looking set pieces.
It’s only when Scamander’s serious American counterpart Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) leads him into the heart of the New Salem drama that the story finds its direction and the movie comes to life. Goldstein is a tough ex-Auror looking for redemption, and her emotional connection to one of the New Salem cult members gives the film the pathos and sense of depth that it’s been sorely missing up to that point.
In general, Redmayne is flat and difficult to care about, but the strong supporting cast—including wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), flapper Queenie (Alison Sudol), and troubled teen Creedence (Ezra Miller)—all give the movie more emotional heft as it reaches its climax. In the end, Fantastic Beasts’supporting actors steal the show, both in moments of comic relief and in moments of tragedy.