J.K. Rowling casts her first spell as a screenwriter in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," and proves that while there is still plenty of wondrous magic left in her wand, her new effort is a far cry from the breathless glee of "Harry Potter."
Shifting the setting of her wizardly happenings to Prohibition-era New York City, she crafts a fascinating portrait of an underground magical society pulsing just out of sight of the steaming manholes and bustling, merchant-lined streets. She also defines an oddball new protagonist who is every bit as fascinating as the Boy Who Lived in nebbish creature researcher Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He's destined to write a textbook that Harry Potter and other Hogwarts kids will tote around in the next century.
Walking with a hobbled gait and speaking with a cockeyed delivery that makes him seem like a man-child ever in fear of a beating, Newt is a likable underdog who gets by as a cast-aside subset in an already marginalized group, still scarred from the legacy of the Salem Witch Trials. Always carrying an enchanted briefcase that transports him to a sanctuary of magical animals he is caring for, Newt is a determined loner bent on educating the ignorant about his misunderstood beasts.
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle is David Yates, who directed the final four "Harry Potter" movies -- by far the most cohesive in the series -- is once again at the helm here, and he guides the story along with a confident command of the Rowling universe.
He's laying the groundwork for another saga, and the story's forward momentum strains a bit under the burden. By focusing on filling out the density of the background detail and working up new characters, he relies on visuals to provide most of the "wow" moments, but struggles to keep the pace flowing. The result is something like a leisurely walking tour through a museum.
The supporting cast congeals quickly, with Dan Fogler as a struggling businessman who ends up tagging along on Newt's misadventures. Katherine Waterston and Samantha Morton play helpful witch sisters Tina and Mary Lou, and Colin Farrell chews scenery as snarling adversarial wizard bureaucrat Graves.
So we have the good guys, the sort-of bad guy and a bunch of interesting creatures. What's lacking is much for them to do other than bump into one another for silly, often dazzling, but nearly all inconsequential actions.
"Fantastic Beats" is a movie you can probably doze off during or take an extended bathroom break, only to come back and find you missed very little. While the "Harry Potter" movies were crammed with a series of unending twists and plot developments, this film -- vacant of story beats -- is a leisurely stroll that sometimes turns into a slog.
The craftsmanship and talent may be there, but there's an ingredient lacking that would make this potion bubble. In the next movie, Rowling, Yates and company will have to conjure something more to bring the series up to "Potter" standards.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.