From the brilliant imagination of J.K. Rowling comes the latest film based in the Muggle vs. Mage, No-Maj (non-magic human) vs. Necromancer and good Wizard vs. really bad Wizard world of Harry Potter–Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling seems to have exhausted the possibilities of modern day magic and turned to the 1920s. The film tells the tale of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a self-trained zoologist and author of the definitive book on magical animals.
Newt has elected to travel to the new world, and one that we haven’t seen yet, North America. His goal, though he lies throughout the film to safeguard his real intent, is to return an incredible flying creature to its home in Arizona. Unfortunately, and oddly, he arrives with a rather unsecured case full of magical beasts that is “bigger on the inside (Eddie Redmayne, the next Doctor Who?).”
Of course, the creatures escape into New York, where magical creatures have been hunted to near extinction and their possession is illegal. Go figure. The bulk of this magical imagining is the hunt for the elusive creatures and the discovery of a dangerous threat to Wizards and No-Majs alike.
Unfortunately, something universally present in the Harry Potter series of films was notably absent in Fantastic Beasts: great characters, great back stories and amazing connections. Notwithstanding some nice performances, there was a sense of wanting more. There was never a moment in original series when the characters seemed less than fully fleshed.
Only Kowalski (Dan Fogler) had flesh on the bones…literally (and figuratively). Admittedly he was written to be an archetype, but he transcended the role. As the friendly, sometimes bumbling No-Maj, Kowalski, Fogler brought some of the best moments of joy to the film. His laughter and thrill at meeting, tending and falling in love with the fantastic beasts, brought chuckles to everyone in the theater. Without him, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would have been far less.
Eddie Redmayne’s performance was, as expected, flawless, as the sometimes nerd, sometimes action hero, Newt. The self-effacing, somewhat self-deprecating and brilliant character is easy to imagine as the younger brother of a famous war hero. He seems perfect as the second son. Redmayne always seems like he’s more the character than even the filmmakers imagined. Like Matt Damon, Ed Norton and James McAvoy before him, Eddie just is the character. Even his character, though, could have used more depth.
Alison Sudol was a standout as Queenie, sister to Porpentina aka Tina (Katherine Waterston) and the love interest of Kowalski. She seemed to be channeling the best of Marilyn Monroe: sexy, funny, a little ethereal, and the amazing childlike voice. Sudol stole scenes, she was so captivating.
Colin Farrell and Katherine Waterston’s characters were disappointing. It took to the end of the film to understand either and even then, there seemed to be a lot missing. Graves (Farrell) was an empty suit. His performance was fine, but the character was not. Tina too, seemed to be doing a lot but to what purpose. In her case, she seemed a rather uninspired and underdeveloped a character. There was little to recommend the performance, and even less to recommend the writing or direction.
David Yates directed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but to what effect? The director catches the darkness and danger, but little of the fun that binds the first Harry Potter films. This is a magical world, with amazing gadgets, gizmos and delightful surprises. However, for some reason there are few in the film. Where are Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans? They are missing and US wizardry seems much the less for it, as does the film.
The writing is good, if a bit bland. Sadly, much of the film was depressing and not a good start for a new franchise. The plot is simple and way too predictable. Only the story elements, particularly the moments with the rather large magic platypus and the baker, Kowalski are fun.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is burdensome. It attempts to create a new franchise without the great characters, wonderful devices, and yes, the great number of wonderful creatures that run wild in Harry Potter. Missing is the childhood joy of Harry Potter and his discovering a world so unlike the muggle world he grew up in. The true star of Beasts should either be Newt Scamander or the beasts. However, Scamander is a sullen, mumbling character with little spark and less joy. The few beasts we meet are fun, but too few and too plain.
Brilliant engaging characters, wonder at new revelations and stunning new CGI are what we expect in a new film series. What Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them delivers is a dark world, nearly devoid of fun, and a land where magical beasts have been destroyed or made illegal. A little child-like whimsy would have been nice.