2016 has been a year of rapid expansion for J. K. Rowling's wildly popular Harry Potter universe; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a July release which, despite not actually being authored by Rowling, was touted as the "eighth Harry Potter story," received a decidedly mixed opinion from fans. Now, the prequel film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with a screenplay by Rowling herself, is out, and Rowling's publishers have put the script out in the manner of Cursed Child - likely, I am rather inclined to think, as a result of the latter's stellar performance on the bestseller lists.
Fantastic Beasts gets off to a promising start. Harry and company are decidedly absent, and so the lack of the colossal expectations incurred by reviving the Hogwarts threesome allows the script to, as it were, let its hair down and breathe a little easier. The central character, a geeky, bumbling enthusiast of magical creatures called Newt Scamander, is a thorough delight, recalling the original heroes before they were Very Important Voldemort Fighters; the signature Rowling wit, too often absent from Cursed Child's attempts at humor, is back and as enjoyable as ever. Those put off by the shortfalls of the year's previous Potter entry should find a great deal here to reassure them.
However, Fantastic Beasts is still a first screenplay effort, and as such it carries a few flaws of its own. Rowling has a tendency to draw her characters in Dickensian broad strokes; while this was charming and entertaining in the first Potter novels, here it often leaves the reader dissatisfied, particularly in the matter of the mysterious character Credence. The lines also occasionally clank into cliché, although never for so long as to draw a groan.
Is Fantastic Beasts smash or trash? It has failures, but overall Rowling's romp through wizarding America is a refreshing return to form for the world of Harry Potter.
FINAL GRADE: A- | SMASH