Hint: they’re in his suitcase. You knew that, right? It’s going to be a very short textbook…
Newt Something-Mander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives from London in 1926 New York City… by boat (no, really, because apparently floo-powder isn’t intercontinental). Decades before You-Know-Who reared his snakelike head, another dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald sought to rule over the No-Maj population (American-to-British translation: “Muggle”), and Newt gets himself nicked as American wizards and witches leap at shadows to keep their end of the hidden magical world from being discovered. Accused of setting loose creatures he illegally brought with him (true), particularly one that enjoys ripping up cobblestone streets and laying waste to buildings (not true), Newt employs the help of disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and an “in the wrong place at the wrong time” No-Maj/Muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to clear his name and set things right. For all his wizarding skills, however, it’s Newt’s knowledge of what his kept creatures can do that’ll save the day — unless the dark conspiracy truly behind the false accusations does him and his friends in first.
With only a printed copy for the script of a stage play to show for a continuation of Harry Potter‘s story, Warner Bros. all but begged author J.K. Rowling to give toss them another magic wand. Fortunately, the fictional text books created as window dressing for a school of witchcraft and wizardry provided exactly the fodder needed, ballooning from one or two films into a planned five films already. Between Pottermore, Harry’s seven books and handful of other resources, there are plenty of blanks to fill in and characters to flesh out. Surely there are more magical places in America than New York City… right?
Nope — just Newt’s suitcase. If you saw the trailers, you know there’s an entire world in there (it’s bigger on the inside, Doctor) and, of course, it malfunctions just enough and often enough to call gross incompetency into question. But Newt’s a well-meaning and likeable kind of guy who feels bad having to remove memories from all-seeing Muggles, so we forgive him… sort of. Unfortunately, with the exception of the sister, pretty much every other witch or wizard appears elitist or useless. While the wizarding world of the United States may be magical, that enchantment feels lost — and it’s not even the Great Depression yet. Even the speakeasies seem incapable of providing any prohibition era joy, so where does that leave the audience?
Of course there has to be a threat or something to fight, but the “roaring twenties” presented here feels oddly nihilistic. By the end, you can’t help but feel sorry for the New Yorkers left to these pompous magic folk; are we supposed to be rooting for the Muggles to expose the magic folk and/or eject them from Manhattan? Never mind the creepy Chamber of Death with the optional observation deck installed — it’s probably catered, too. Maybe there’s more to this story, and perhaps the keen observer is meant to understand that things are very wrong, but does it have to feel so hopeless? Colin Farrell plays a character named Graves; that’s not telling, is it?
This isn’t your ‘rents Harry Potter, kids; dark-bad stuff is happening and what isn’t shown is being strongly hinted at. Knowing that there’s more to come, couldn’t they have at least shown us Ilvermorny’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry of North America? Prior to this franchise film, the Wizarding World seemed like a cool place to be, but let’s hold off on any plans to build the New York Magical Congress and Death Chamber at Universal Studios, okay?
2 Skull Recommendation our of Four