The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-