“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
Directed by David Yates
Starring Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell
Back in 2003, BBC News reported that J.K. Rowling was richer than the queen of England — and Harry Potter fans, it seemed, were willing to put the money in her pocket, as long as she delivered more quality action from the wizarding world.
More than a decade later, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” the latest tale from the Potter universe, marks the return that fans of the Harry Potter franchise have been clamoring for. But with all its wand-waving and sorcery, this installment lacks the magic and wit that made the fictional universe a cultural staple in the first place — and might even discourage fans from showing up to its reported extra installments.
Rowling makes her screenwriting debut with this film, loosely based on the fictional textbook from the Potter universe, which she wrote an extended version of for the British Charity organization Comic Relief in 2001.
Though she has the ability to spin countless memorable tales through thousands of pages in the seven-part Harry Potter series, Rowling, in what sets up another planned four installments for the Warner Brothers property, starts a streak of disappointment. Following the mixed reception of her recent play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” both that and this new project find Rowling simply cashing in on the wealth of the committed fans at her disposal.
Recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne — for his well-acclaimed turn as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything” — stars as Newt Scamander, the author of all 52 editions of the titular, unwritten book in the period setting of late-1920s New York. Director David Yates — the man behind the four films that make up the latter half of the eight-part film series, “Order of the Phoenix” through “Deathly Hallows Pt. 2” — works with his familiar Potter elements comfortably while highlighting the historical angle and action beats whenever possible.
Scamander travels from Britain to America while researching for his book, a deceptively deep briefcase in hand — á la an undetectable extension charm — full of magical creatures. The action begins when Scamander loses four of the creatures and they begin to cause mayhem in the non-magic world of New York. The suitcase of a muggle baker Jacob Kowalski, who is played by the film’s belabored source of comic relief Dan Fogler, switches with Scamander’s as the wizard attempts to locate one of the monsters, a sea anemone-like rat.
Scamander’s troubles attract the attention of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, including Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), auror and director of magical security. Graves covertly tries to earn favor from orphan Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who hides his magical abilities from his adopted mother and cult leader (Samantha Morton), who is out to expose witches and wizards as evil. Meanwhile, former auror Porpentina Goldstein, excellently played by Katherine Waterston, and her flirtatious telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) help Scamander in his search.
“Fantastic Beasts” hardly touches on the modern mythology of the pop culture phenomenon from which it spawned, but that doesn’t mean the film’s plot spins anything precisely original, daring or reasonably compelling. Redmayne anchors an otherwise flimsy and underwhelming fantasy film with some semblance of emotional authenticity.
With only imagination at her disposal, Rowling’s script comes up fairly short. She manages to work plenty of the 75 magical creatures from her short book into the adaptation, but “Fantastic Beasts” is stretched to a generous two-hour plus runtime with an almost exhausting amount of visual effects-driven sequences. All of these are somewhat subdued in provoking suspense when magic is the easiest fix for any situation of danger.
In the film’s favor, the cast is formidably good even if the characters are dull, with the likes of Jon Voight and Ron Perlman taking on smaller roles. The visual effects are as fairly miraculous as you would expect, and the humor with the creatures is often charming and engaging. There’s a demiguise, munchkin-looking animal who can disappear, as well as a niffler, who looks like a cross between a penguin and a platypus. James Newton Howard’s score also puts “Hedwig’s Theme” to rest after the opening seconds, and his instrumentals are stirring — even if the film isn’t.
Albus Dumbledore is mentioned in passing and Johnny Depp’s reported turn as young Grindelwald in the sequel unfortunately arrives ahead of schedule. But, as far as setup for future installments, this film is generally a closed loop, finding distracting, wand-waving ways to create elaborate chases with digitally animated animals to pass the time.
Rowling’s cinematic storytelling, regardless of how many action set pieces she can stage, is both plodding and overindulgent. The author has frequently been a fantasy writer of clever pastiche with nods to Tolkien and world-building built on playful reinterpretation of classic lore. But here, all of Rowling’s efforts work to her severe disadvantage.
With little sense of a threat and tepid romantic subplots, there is nothing creative enough here that can’t be found in any adaptation of Rowling’s immensely popular book series. There are also no payoffs for its outsider scenario, wherein it could explore American magical culture.
“Fantastic Beasts” is too visually engaging and action-filled to be called unexciting, but, as the first installment of a long series, the film certainly hits the ground — we’ll just have to wait for it to get running.