While entertaining for loyal Harry Potter fans, the latest installment into the wizarding world feels more like a jump start of a new series than a fully realized film.
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Jenn Murray, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Ron Perlman
While stopping over in New York on a massive global excursion of studying and collecting magical creatures, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) accidentally switches cases with No-Maj (American speak for Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Fogler). Jacob unknowingly releases several of the magical critters from the case creating havoc for the wizards attempting to keep a low profile in a magic intolerant United States. With the help of a disgraced ex-auror Tina (Waterson) and her master legilimens sister, Queenie (Sudol), Newt and Jacob must find all the escaped creatures before the No-Majs catch on to a whole other world aside from their own. Meanwhile, a different threat has descended upon the city of New York and could do more damage than anything in Newt’s case.
Remember how dark and broody the last three Harry Potter films were? Well brace yourselves for a much darker movie with Fantastic Beasts. If you have little ones, I would seriously consider waiting for this one to come out on DVD before letting them watch. In the first screen play written exclusively by Rowling (she supervised the ones based on her books), the author tapped into the current climate in both the U.K. and U.S. to make a film about humans and wizards fearing what they don’t know or understand to the point of nearly starting a war with one another, all fueled by a couple of zealots preaching fear of the other group.
There are signs the spin off movie started out as just a romp about magical creatures causing some havoc in New York and Newt is the center of it all because he is the expert on such entities (the book he is working on in the film eventually becomes a textbook used Hogwarts). But half-way thru filming, Warner Bros. became greedy and decided to make Fantastic Beasts into a film series forcing Rowling to quickly come up with a proper villain our heroes must eventually face. I know that is not what really happened, but that is how this film feels. Newt’s version of Pokémon Go and the lead up Gellert Grindelwald followers attempts to bring his form of terrorism to the United States (not a spoiler by the way, the opening is focused solely on the whereabouts of the Dark Wizard and the possibility of him being in the States).
Where Fantastic Beasts flourishes is when it concentrates on the hunt for the magical creatures and the world Newt has created for the discoveries within his case. Several of the beasts will be delightfully familiar for Harry Potter fans as they or their properties are mentioned throughout the series. Each creature shown is created with such loving detail and steal the show from their human counterparts. The Bowtruckle with attachment issues and the Niffler enjoying jewelry stores and banks will leave children and adults alike wanting more of them. The entire 133-minute run could have taken place inside of Newt’s case and it would have been awesome.
The movie stumbles when it ventures into politics of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) and the shady dealings of Percival Graves (Farrell). Newt losing a few creatures is very bad for the wizards living in the big apple. No-Majs tend to be violently intolerant of magic (Salem Witch Trials, anyone?), driving the MACUSA to enforce strict laws when it comes to wizards and No-Majs interacting. At the heart of this story is Mary Lou (Morton), a religious zealot who has formed the New Salem Philanthropic Society dedicated to exposing and eradicating witches, and the shadow of Gellert Grindelwald with whom the MACUSA fears is causing trouble in the city to start a war with No-Majs.
For those who are not avid Harry Potter fans and didn’t read on the history of magic in North America on Pottermore will be slightly confused. The film’s magical protagonists do stop and enlighten Jacob since he is our proxy in this world, but it is not explained very well. Rowling assumes you have studied before coming to the theater and she can stick to the cliff notes version of exposition. It is like the film equivalent of a teacher giving her students a pop quiz on material she assigned as extracurricular reading at the beginning of the semester.
The large cast of characters are on the hit or miss side. While Tina, Queenie, and Jacob are given some backstory and it is apparent why they would all relate to one another, Newt’s history (outside of a quick mention of his time at Hogwarts) is non-existent. It is clear his motivations are saving the creatures he loves and he is the type of person who gets along better with animals than people, but that is more due to Redmayne’s excellent portrayal of his crippling shyness than Rowling’s script. I found myself wanting to know more about why he is the way he is. The Academy Award winning actor is exceptional, but he tends to mumble speak making it difficult to understand him. Miller’s Credence (the son of Mary Lou) is also a cripplingly shy character and it makes for a whole lot of awkward standing around and staring for two of the major stars.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a good movie for those who are fanatics of the wizarding world. It works as a hold over to the next installment of the spin-off series which will hit theaters in 2018. What would have made this movie better is if it was made as its own film that just happened to have some setup for a future franchise. As it stands, Fantastic Beasts is more like a pilot to a TV series than a movie.
3 ½ out of 5 Stars