As if I even need to say it, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them took the top of the box office this past weekend with a whopping $74.4 million domestically, and a $218.3 million total with international numbers factored in, sending it well past its $180 million budget on its opening weekend. And though this was actually the weakest opening for a Harry Potter-related film, that’s not really surprising considering it’s a new story trying to kick start a new franchise without a previously formed book fan base like the Harry Potter series had. The numbers show that the majority of the audience was returning older fans instead of newcomers under the age of 18, but they don’t need to sweat it as this film is the first in a planned five-film franchise; they needed to lay the groundwork to invite new fans in, and if it works like it’s probably going to, the numbers will only increase with each installment.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tells the story of Newt Scamander, a curious but brilliant wizard out to learn about magical creatures the wizard community has deemed dangerous in an attempt to record his findings and stop the unnecessary killing of these creatures. But when his case of creatures breaks loose in New York City, it’s up to Newt and his two new friends, an ex-Auror and a muggle (nomaj, in American vernacular) to recapture them safely.

Except that’s not the real story here. This movie is more or less a setup for a bigger, more exciting story down the line, and it’s obvious in Rowling’s screenplay that the attempt to catch the creatures is really just a connect-the-dots skeleton plot for her to be able to tell the story she really wants to tell: the rise of the evil wizard Grindelwald and how that all connects to the Wizarding World we know and love from the Harry Potter franchise. Yes, it’s wonderful to get to know Newt and Teenie and Kowalski, and to see these magical creatures wreak havoc on 1920’s New York City, but all of the dramatic weight comes from the political side of things. A mysterious force is running loose in New York City, and Colin Farrell’s character, Graves, along with the American Magical Congress, is trying to contain it before the nomajs find out about the Wizarding Community. On top of that, a group called The Second Salemers claims to know about the existence of witches and wizards in New York City and wants to exterminate them, which kind of felt like a tongue-in-cheek jab at the religious fanatics who think Harry Potter books and movies are evil and promoting witchcraft practices, though if they’d ever actually paid any attention to anything, would realize that it’s riddled with Biblical references and morals about friendship, acceptance, and self-sacrificial love. But what do I know? I only read the books multiple times, saw every film, and consider myself a huge fan. Whatever.

Anyway, the film itself is overall a safe, fun blockbuster that never becomes anything more than it promises: another Wizarding World movie and the beginning of another franchise, for better or worse. I do want to add, too, that this is one of the only films I would advise not seeing in 3D. Normally, I’m a proponent of 3D, but in this case, it was wildly distracting and took me out of the story more often than not. But honestly, that’s my biggest gripe. David Yates’ directing feels accessible and easily digestible just like the Harry Potter movies he directed; the cast is top notch, sweet when they need to be and corny when appropriate; the score is sweeping and magical, and reminiscent of the other films.

Nothing in this movie blew my mind or changed my perceptions of the world I already knew, but it wasn’t supposed to. Instead, it made me want to go back and watch it again and again, if not to get a better handle on the plot, but to be in that world for just a moment longer. Lucky for us, we get four more of these movies (for now), so there will be plenty of time for this franchise to turn into a beast all its own.

Moving on to our less than successful newcomers, The Edge of Seventeen and Bleed for This brought in a disappointing $4.7 million and $2.3 million respectively, which is a little surprising considering their casts and the fact that independent films have been having a heyday of a year this year. Then again, I think a lot of their failure can be attributed to a lack of advertising as well as the fact that people are getting their arthouse fix from Arrival, which only dropped down one spot to number four this week and is still blowing minds and garnering glowing word-of-mouth, and Moonlight which finally got a national release this past weekend. On top of that, Doctor Strange and Trolls are still snagging moviegoers at spots two and three respectively, so really, now is not the time for a coming-of-age sex comedy or a drama about a boxer; we’ll save those appetites for post-holiday Oscar season.

Looking ahead to next week, we’ll see the release of Moana from Disney Animation Studios marking the second release for the studio this year after the wildly relevant and deeply profound ZootopiaMoana tells the story of a girl with special ocean powers who has to summon the demi-god Maui to save the Pacific Islands and her people. Judging by early glowing reviews, a non-whitewashed cast (finally!), a delightful soundtrack, and the charming, funny, heartwarming, colorful trailers, Disney Animation has another classic on their hands. Moana is my bet for what will be taking the top of the charts this coming holiday weekend, but either way, I’ll probably see it twice.

This weekend also sees the release of Allied, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, which tells the story of a star-crossed romance between two people on opposing sides of World War II. Yep, another World War II movie for the holidays. Just what we need. Even with the talent behind this film, it looks like another lukewarm war-romance Oscar-grab, which is a shame considering Zemeckis has given us such classics as Forrest GumpThe Polar Express, and one of my favorite films of all time, Back to the Future. It’s also written by Steven Knight, who has a spotty track record, but has some pretty high highs. Perhaps this film will prove me wrong, but I honestly think we’ll forget about this one pretty quickly.

And speaking of forgetting, Bad Santa 2 stumbles into theaters this weekend to give us another sequel nobody wanted since the fan base of the original 2003 film is 13 years older and hopefully wiser than to spend money to see Billy Bob Thornton don the red and white suit, get drunk, try to rob stores, and…wait, what are these movies even about? Is that it? Wow. Cool. So edgy. What a bad, bad Santa - And it’s directed by Marc Waters, who gave us Mean Girls and a ton of other movies that range from forgettable to abysmal. Hopefully audiences will hold off on their holiday comedies until the upcoming Office Christmas Party and Why Him? which don’t look particularly classic, but they’ve gotta be better than Bad Santa 2, which looks like its goal is to destroy your holiday spirit and your faith in comedy.

We’ll also see the release of Rules Don’t Apply, a romantic-comedy period piece set in 1958 Hollywood, starring Lily Collins, which looks like the pleasant yin to Allied’s yang. If romance in the 40’s and 50’s sounds like your thing, you’ve got a double-header this weekend!

All in all that’s all for this week! Despite some potential duds hitting theaters this weekend, we’ve still got Moana, and of course Fantastic Beasts, Doctor Strange, Trolls, and Arrival to provide plenty of post-Thanksgiving entertainment for families of all kinds! So go see a movie and enjoy the three F’s this holiday weekend: family, food, and film!

-Adam Stutsman

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