Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by David Yates
Opens November 18
Amidst the expensive security blanket that is a J.K. Rowling-penned Harry Potter spinoff series directed by the same guy who made the fifth through eighth Harry Potter films stands a bold casting gambit, disguised as a cash-in. Front and center for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, allegedly part one of five, is Newt Scamander, author of the same-named Hogwarts textbook, and Newt Scamander is played by Academy Award winning actor and frequently off-putting weirdo Eddie Redmayne. Scamander arrives in 1920s New York City with a magical briefcase containing a menagerie of unusual creatures. In short order, they’re accidentally released, attracting the attention of an American auror (magical law enforcement), Tina (Katherine Waterston), and ensnaring a no-maj (American for muggle) named Jacob (Dan Fogler).
This sends Newt and company scampering around New York attempting to recapture his animal friends before they attract the attention of oblivious humans and/or receive blame for an unrelated series of magical deaths. This is where Redmayne starts to look like an odd choice for the anchor of a franchise, because he does not so much give the impression of someone apt to chase anyone or anything down. With his hunched posture, curled lips, and voice that sounds like Colin Firth murmuring through a mouth full of novocaine, Redmayne seems more likely to scurry underneath some furniture or rush home to build a ship in a bottle. This quality makes Newt a fascinatingly reticent hero for a big fantasy film—an introvert to match Rowling’s nerdiest fans.
The problem with Redmayne playing to his strengths slash weaknesses is that he’s not an especially charismatic introvert (and, secondarily, it’s sometimes really goddamn hard to understand him). The movie also, somewhat paradoxically, doesn’t take much advantage of Newt’s loneliness or quirks in its writing; he’s a mildly pleasant, mildly weird cipher, and though there’s amusing candor when he admits “I annoy people,” Rowling and Yates don’t let him be actually annoying or socially awkward beyond casting Redmayne in the role. He’s all recessiveness and no fascination; building a movie around him doesn’t wind up making much sense.
This may be why there’s plenty of some other movie built up around him instead. There’s potential fun to be had in the unveiling of the American wizarding life, but the supplementary mythology gradually overtakes the movie like the cloud of CG destructo-smoke that turns the climax into another indistinct building-wrecker. All the noise swallows up Colin Farrell, as a government worker who questions Newt and Tina about their connection to a series of suspicious deaths, and Samantha Morton as a witchcraft-obsessed “Second Salemer,” among other good actors. Even when the story drifts back to the main characters, it has a lot of introductions—an extended tour of Newt’s magically habitable briefcase goes on forever, and other scenes are seeded with familiar faces (including one bona fide superstar), presumably some of which will populate future installments. These entrances and additions rarely feel concise; Rowling, a first-time screenwriter, seems accustomed to viewers who come in already knowing a lot of backstory and will be delighted to see certain characters depicted at all.
That’s not to say that the movie is bereft of those nerdy pleasures. The fantastic beasts themselves are a lot of fun, particularly a larcenous platypus-like creature who appropriately pilfers every scene he’s in. A visit to a Roaring Twenties version of the Mos Eisley Cantina delivers, too briefly, on the promise of a Harry Potter universe story starring adults. The movie even manages to turn former irritant Dan Fogler into sort of a present-day Danny DeVito, only nicer—no small feat! But Potter lifer David Yates (he’s set to direct the four hypothetical sequels to this movie), who ably shepherded the original series across the finish line, seems to have lost a step. Fantastic Beasts is full of wonderful sets that Yates doesn’t always explore with clarity—his cuts within and between scenes are often jumpy and dislocated, like he’s apparating around his action sequences. He’s not much for slapstick timing, either, rarely sustaining a sight gag long enough for it to register properly.
There’s some subtext about the scapegoating of imported magical creatures (de facto immigrants) for homegrown evils, but Fantastic Beasts spends more of its human emotions on a series of tidily bittersweet goodbyes than on any messier matters. In fact, it may spend more time on those goodbyes than on the actual relationships they’re supposed to cap off. I suppose it counts as a victory that this movie has an ending at all, with only vague sequel-teasing, rather than cutting off mid-story and telling audiences to check back in a year or two for more. But the magic, such as it is, still feels awfully workmanlike.