'Fantastic Beasts' Is 'Harry Potter' Minus The Magic

Are we ready for Katherine Waterston, Hollywood star? The indie muse, last seen dyed in a mysterious glow in Inherent Vice and shooting death stares in Queen of Earth, begins her blockbuster career eating a hot dog. I mean that literally—the 6-foot actress mischievously (but not inconspicuously) scarfs a hot dog when she first appears in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the first in a new series of wizard films from Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling. With her nasally and almost frail voice and big watery eyes, Waterston stands out among not just the barrage of CGI but also her peers, going entirely sincere amongst a rather silly affair. When we first meet her character, the disgraced Auror (a sort of wizard police officer) Tina, it's hard to tell if she got demoted over incompetence or because she let her bleeding heart get in the way of the job. Waterston, however, negotiates her ill-defined character with a charmed grace, standing straight in slender dresses and bringing a pulse to this capitalist machine of a film (next year she tries once again in Ridley Scott's latest Alien installment).

And how else to describe Rowling's refusal to give up on the world she created? Fantastic Beasts launches a whole new set of characters in the 1920s, with Waterston playing second fiddle to Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander, who Potter diehards will recognize as the author of a textbook from which this film takes its title. Redmayne once again displays a disconcerting lack of charisma—too boyish to give off any confidence and too self-aware to feel authentic. Here he plays a Londoner come to New York who accidentally releases some of the eponymous creatures onto the CGI city (for a film having ten times the budget of James Gray's The Immigrant, its attempt to create an authentic Lower Manhattan street feels laughably amateur). Fantastic Beasts might allow for some fun for fans curious to see how the other side of the pond acts in Potter-world (they call the non-wizard Muggles "No-Maj" for instance), but toward what purpose?

When Rowling initially optioned her Harry Potter series to Warner Bros. some 16 years ago, she entrusted Steve Kloves to take each book and find a 3-act narrative in her rambling stories designed well for the page. But for Fantastic Beasts, Rowling has written the screenplay herself, which attempts to simultaneously introduce a whole new set of characters while also world-building. The success of Rowling's previous adaptations was based on the audience familiarity with the otherwise incomprehensible plot, letting the actors embody characters they already knew. Rowling's script here feels rushed at every moment, the characters particularly ill-defined simply because of the amount of things that have to happen, including a political election, a wizard government whose job is to stand around and look concerned, a child abuse subplot, and Colin Ferrell.

What remains most curious about Fantastic Beasts is the strange ways it attempts to appeal to both a young audience while reeling in nostalgic millennials. This choice demands the creation of no less than two dozen, partly cute and fuzzy creatures; one imagines that these pricey 30-second CGI cameos will justify their cost in toy sales. But beyond keeping the romance rather chaste, many sequences throughout the film aim for a more adult-oriented audience that could easily terrify small children. While the stakes of the Potter films always felt big to the characters but rather small in scale, Fantastic Beasts ends with an almost Marvel-like destruction via a giant cloud rampaging through New York City. With its overloaded CGI trickery and a particularly adult appeal, the film seems to attempt to lasso in both audiences to mixed results.

During the heyday of the early 2000s, Warner Bros. came the closest of any studio to defining a particular house style between its Potter and Batman franchises, a rarity in the conglomerate era. Since the appointment of Kevin Tsujihara, WB has struggled to find an identity with a series of mishaps, flops, and a few surprises defined as outliers. Fantastic Beasts feels like an attempt to reclaim to reclaim that moment, but the desperateness of this—by the studio, Rowling, and everyone else—has erased any of the magic of its previous iterations.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.