'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' Entertains and Frustrates in Equal Measure
J.K. Rowling mixes up a strange potion of Jumanji and Carrie.
There are two stories battling for the soul of the new Harry Potter offshoot, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The first is a whimsical delight filled with magical creations and eccentric characters. The second story, however, is a dark slog that’s more concerned with franchise building than having fun. Director David Yates can handle the whimsy, but J.K. Rowling’s awkward script makes it nearly impossible to balance the darkness. Potter fanatics will undoubtedly overlook the flaws and celebrate the flair, but the casual viewer will find these Fantastic Beasts disappointingly tame.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a troublemaker. More specifically, he’s “a chaser” of magical beasts; a conjurer dedicated to educating his fellow wizards about the virtues of all creatures great and small. The Hogwarts reject arrives in 1926 New York City with nothing but a magic wand and a briefcase full of rambunctious critters. It’s a rough time to dabble in magic, what with the diabolical wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) running amok and Mary Lou's (Samantha Morton) one-woman crusade to destroy all witches.
It doesn’t take Newt long to find trouble, thanks to a naughty platypus named Niffler that loves to plunder treasure. This early sequence -- perhaps the film’s high point-- not only introduces our three primary characters, but hints at the glorious oddball Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them might have been as a standalone story. Newt chases Niffler through a bustling bank, struggling to keep up with the money-grubbing delinquent. There, he literally collides with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a frustrated factory worker who needs a loan in order to open his own bakery. Watching suspiciously is Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ambitious witch who monitors supernatural matters for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA).
These three characters, particular the non-magician Jacob (or Muggle, in Potter parlance), and Newt’s assortment of amazing creatures are positively enchanting. Adventure follows them everywhere as they bumble through a dazzling array of '20s-era set designs and the magical portals hidden inside Newt’s suitcase. It’s kind of like a portable TARDIS, only with fleas.
Most of Newt’s lovable critters are earthly creations with a twist of imagination. Baby birds have serpentine bodies, while hippo-like creatures grow to massive proportions (and try to mate with the adorably clueless Jacob). Director David Yates helmed the last four Potter outings and he clearly feels at home in this universe. He deftly constructs each scene to mesmerize the audience, as when Newt instructs Jacob on how to feed his menagerie of creatures. You share Jacob’s sense of wonder, wishing that you could explore the very edges of this magical world.
Unfortunately, J.K. Rowling has different plans.
Instead of delivering on the promise of an exhilarating romp through the streets of New York, Rowling obsesses over a listless sub-plot involving Mary Lou’s orphanage. In particular, the bizarre relationship between a sullen boy named Credence (Ezra Miller) and Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security at MACUSA. Graves has a decidedly non-humanitarian interest in Credence, whom the sadistic Mary Lou routinely thrashes with a belt for disobeying her authoritarian demands. There’s a disturbing tone to this storyline that simply doesn’t mesh with Newt’s lighthearted quest. It’s kind of like trying to combine Kimberly Peirce's remake of Carrie (2013) with Joe Johnston's Jumanji (1995, a remake will be released in 2017). Mercifully, Mary Lou doesn't chastise Credence about his “dirty pillows”.
The reason for Rowling’s preoccupation, of course, is her need to lay the groundwork for a new Fantastic Beasts franchise. That this groundwork undermines the joy and thrill of her primary story seems of little consequence. Newt’s journey becomes one not of discovery, but of necessity; we need to meet villains and learn about conspiracies that can tie multiple films together. Rowling builds an intricate mystery at the center of her story, but when the ‘big reveal’ finally arrives, it has absolutely no bearing on the conclusion of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Unless you live and die with all things Harry Potter, you’ll likely feel frustrated that Newt’s thrilling story was repeatedly interrupted by this drab, ultimately unrelated plotline.
Luckily, stellar performances from Fogler and Waterston ease the disappointment. Rather than simply using him as comic relief, the portly Fogler brings a noble humanity to this fantastical world full of ultra-powerful magicians. He develops a genuine and believable chemistry with Tina’s flirtatious sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), which leads to an unexpectedly poignant conclusion for their romance. Waterston is the quintessential plucky sidekick, capturing the essence of a ‘20s Flapper with her bobbed hair and jazzy record collection. That she disappears for large portions of the film is baffling.
Redmayne is an undeniably gifted actor, but his characteristic mumbling is growing tiresome. Though perfectly cast as the socially awkward Newt, Redmayne often seems lost amidst the chaos. It’s likely that Newt will have heavier lifting to do in future installments, but he’s largely a bystander here. Again, the emphasis on darker, more insidious forces makes Newt’s story feel small and inconsequential in comparison.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a perfectly suitable launch for what promises to be another lucrative franchise. Where it differs from its Potter predecessors is in tone and mood. This is often a gloomy affair, dwelling on the ugly world of adults who have hidden agendas and bad intentions. It will be interesting to see if a new generation of viewers embraces Newt’s gang like they did Harry’s band of young witches. So far, the potion is considerably less palatable.