FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (2016)
Directed by David Yates
Warner Brothers, 133 minutes, PG-13 (loud action, violent situations)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a quasi-prequel to J. K. Rowling's acclaimed Harry Potter series. First, a confession: I am not a devotee of the Potter Universe; in fact, I pretty much gave up after the first book and movie. For me, it was no Lord of the Rings and I tagged it a 'tween fantasy not intended for my eyes or mind. My wife, Emily, on the other hand, was totally hooked. She convinced me to go see Fantastic Beasts, which I found to be much ado about very little. But my critique is more than a Muggle's muddle; neither of us liked the film.
Those who thrilled to every word of Harry Potter will delight in pre-Potter references. The film is set in 1926, but Hogwarts Academy, you will recall, is ancient. Magic wands abound, as does Muggle fear of magicians–so much so, in fact, that the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA) maintains a strict code of secrecy between its members and the No-Maj (Muggle) world. The veil is rent by a series of wanton destructive acts in New York City, including the murder of New York Senator Henry Shaw, Jr. MACUSA suspects these acts to have been the work of Gelbert Grindelwald, a name Potterians will recognize as a legendary dark wizard. MACUSA also has its Aurors at work tracking down dark wizards of all sorts. Public displays of magic are pretty much forbidden.
Enter Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a member of the British Ministry of Magic and a magizooligist, who just happens to arrive by steamship to see New York City before proceeding to Arizona to set free a magic beast. He will, of course, be in the middle of the ensuing mayhem. He's also the source of our first glaring logical inconsistency. Newt arrives carrying a well-worn leather case that is stuffed with magical beasties. When a platypus-like gold-hoarding Niffler escapes, his playful thievery is just another crack in the MACUSA cone of silence–and makes Newt a suspect. Why would Newt be carrying his entire menagerie? Insofar as I can determine, this rather curious logic error occurs so Ms. Rowling can give us a visual Bestiary of the Magical World. It is an encyclopedic display that takes us from Ashwinders to Thunderbird by way of Billywigs, Erumpents, Graphorns, and Murtlaps. The film introduces us to Bowtruckles, stick-like tree guardians that are like Jiminy Cricket without a face. If you're already lost, avoid this movie.
The narrative arc of this film is more like a series of ruined bridges. Subplots–such as the rampage of a randy Erumpent– are often thrown in mostly for comedic wonderment and are often incidental to the story. There are so many similar departures that I can't imagine a child will be able to follow much of the story. Or, maybe there just isn't much of one. As it so happens, a powerful Obscura (Say what?) is loose in the city and Newt will be drawn into the chase, along with a demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a No-Maj cannery worker/baker wannabe Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Tina's bombshell flirt of a sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who also happens to be a Legilimen, something like an empath, I gather. Now are you lost? If not, there's also the fanatical New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group of No-Maj extremists headed Mary Lou Barebones (Samantha Morton), who is also the proverbial wicked stepmother to three adopted children: Modesty, Chastity, and Credence (Ezra Miller), the latter a sad sack in whom Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) has taken avuncular interest. Now sit back and watch things go awry and blow up. The film is exceedingly loud and the action mirrors the chaos of the script.
It's pretty well acted, though I found Redmayne essentially re-channeling the same awkward shy/fay qualities he exhibited in The Danish Girl, and many of his soft-spoken mumbles were lost on my impaired ears. Waterston and Fogler steal the screen from him, as Sudol would also have done had her part been less fluffy. There are also juicy cameo roles for actors such as Johnny Depp, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, and Jon Voight. In the end, though, this is pretty much a standard action film with magic wands instead of big guns. It's little more than the latest Big Budget Pic in which all of the money was spent on splashy thrill-a-minute f/x and the script reads like an extra credit project from a first-year college writing class. And this isn't just the judgment of a Muggle. Emily's verdict: "There was nothing magical about it."