Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J. K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell
Runtime: 133 Minutes
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is something of a gamble for the hearts of audiences going in to see it, who have already grown up on the Harry Potter series in one of Hollywood cinema’s redefining 21st century productions, and as such are already braced in some part for the world that they are about to re-enter. A prequel series (this being the first of five instalments) exploring a new and unrealised world from the mind of J.K. Rowling without prior context or baring, there rises a question of where the film might place itself in relation to this original text.
Starting off with an entirely new set of characters, location and time period, there’s enough new to be found in the film without it leaning back on pre-established formula and narratives, which allows for some leniency in its approach to world building and the unhurried time it can take establishing the new ground rules. Unfortunately, the framework around which all of this new décor is hung is very, very crooked indeed.
Fantastic Beasts is a narrative car crash, comprising of two surprisingly dull storylines that struggle to merge into a unified whole. The main storyline we follow concerns the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) – a magizoologist and recently expelled Hogwarts student - and his new group of American friends as they race to recapture a handful of magical creatures that have escaped from their habitats in his mysterious suitcase. The reasons behind their escape are beyond contrived, yet the film turns into a caper as they go through the motions of scrambling to capture the slippery creatures now roaming the city.
The second narrative follows Auror Percival Graves’ (Colin Farrell) security detail, assigned by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) to track down Scamander, as well as his conflicts with the No-Maj (Non-Magical) Barebone family and their New Salem society who exist to expose the wizarding world under the pretence of Witches being a plague on the city.
The two narratives really struggle to connect to each other beyond vague happenstance, as pretty much everything that unfolds over the Scamander storyline overall feels rather frivolous when the gravity of the other is truly taken into account in the third act. Which doesn’t bode well for Rowling, this being her first screenplay effort too. Rowling’s disconnect from cinematic narrative structure – as well as the promise of follow-ups to fill in the gaps – allows the pace of the film to falter in stop and start motions between set pieces. This is only made more tedious as there is very little tension to be mined from these situations given that the stakes simply don’t feel very high.
The likes of the Goldstein sisters are both played with adequate gravity and levity by both Katherine Waterston as Tina and Alison Sudol as Queenie. Waterston gets some good material to work with, while Sudol gets not only the most personality across, but also finds herself romantically entangled with No-Maj Jacob Kowalski. Played by the already underappreciated Dan Fogler, it’s really great to see him let rip in a role that allows him to bumble through the set with genuine reactionary delight.
The weak link of the main cast turns out to be Eddie Redmayne. Though he certainly comes across as likeable, he underplays and mumbles his way through the dialogue to such a degree that he barely registers any personality beyond mere quirks. While Scamander as a character is so inadequate that much of his background is left in the dust to be solved in later movies, and he shares shockingly little emotional resonance with his group even when the film is trying to convince you that they’ve quickly become the best of friends.
Oddly, it’s the non-magical world around these events that might be the most interesting new diversions – yet hardly any of it is dwelled on for very long. There’s an entire subplot in waiting involving a US senator’s election that’s shown and then immediately dropped, itself feeling like a timely reminder of the fears of segregation and out of touch media moguls running the country in a desperate era.
The Barebone family stand as an entirely new angle on the world, particularly Ezra Miller’s Credence and his torn devotions to his heartless mother (Samantha Morton) and his guidance by Farrell’s clearly untrustworthy mentor figure. Farrell gets some decent work across for much of his screen time, although it’s immediately undone by a gaudy and incomprehensible 11th-hour twist in the tale which utterly robs the character of any prior conviction.
Their developments lead to some of the more attention-grabbing additions to the canon; a troubling form of dark magic called Obscuruses which attach themselves to repressed witches and wizards, but even as this reaches its peak the film devolves into a heavily digitised spectacle that feels just as light and engineered as the creature hunting.
The visual effects themselves are alarming mediocre for a film of this scale. While some effects on the smaller imaginative creatures such as the Niffler are decent, the larger scale work is insanely overblown and weightless. Also, while the design work of 1920s magical realms is appealing, the green screen composite work for much of New York's exterior is staggeringly obvious and sterile – leaving much of the city feeling like some empty, washed-out wasteland.
With all this being said, it would be a lie to say that Fantastic Beasts isn’t without its moments of genuine wonder and sincerity amidst its chaotic foundations. There is still plenty of whimsy to be had, especially by those already devoted fans that are willing to dive headfirst back into this comforting world. David Yates direction is still strong with a keen focus on intricate detail flourishes, and James Newton Howard’s attributed score is fabulously loud and capricious. It’s just wherever its plot is concerned that things feel a bit too insubstantial for the basis of something that will last for another four films.
As a trip down nostalgia lane for many who grew up with the series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might just be enough for now, but for everyone else this feels like a diluted, empty cashgrab of a production from artists and creators who should have moved on to new horizons.