There are a lot of things to like about “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” But, it is not quite as magical as the Harry Potter series from which it is derived.
Fans of the billion dollar Potter franchise instantly recognized the film’s title as the name of a Hogwarts School textbook. The book was written by Newt Scamander, and this new film begins the story of his adventures in America. It is the first film in a series of five.
Decades before Harry Potter would face Lord Voldemort, Gellert Grindelwald terrorized the wizarding world. Governments around the globe scrambled to stop the tyrannical uprising. But the MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America), in an effort to keep wizarding kind safe, instituted strict guidelines on magical abilities. When Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York in 1926, it is with the sort of naive optimism that easily wins friends and also causes unexpected trouble.
Scamander is in the States to do research for a book. He wants to show wizards most beasts aren’t dangerous if properly cared for. Through a series of mishaps and movie cliches, Newt falls into the company of Jake Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a non-magical man herein called a no-maj. Jake plans to open a bakery with the savings he accumulated from his job on the docks. Together they meet Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced ex-Auror of MACUSA determined to clear her name. Rounding out a foursome is Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) as a silly but capable witch with the ability to read minds.
The four are on the run from MACUSA authorities. Something dangerous lurks in the streets of Manhattan. Head Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) believes newcomer Scamander is responsible. But his attention is divided between tracking Scamander and dealing with another threat to wizards. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads a fundamentalist anti-wizard group called the Second Salemers. Together with her adopted children, she lobbies Senator Shaw (Jon Voight) to stop the wizards. Shaw and his brother dismiss the family as a group of freaks. That turns out to be a mistake. Following a very public incident, Shaw becomes obsessed with destroying the wizarding world.
J.K. Rowling is one of the most gifted writers of our time. More than 450 million copies of her septology have sold worldwide. While this script definitely has traces of her signature style, it is surprisingly unoriginal. Senator Shaw’s mission is far too similar to the plots of films like “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Captain America: Civil War” and basically any movie about oppression. This isn’t a terrible problem since it is a very relevant topic today. However, it just feels overplayed in a story with so many other plots to follow. In fact, a lot of the plot points feel overplayed, including accidental briefcase switching, escaped animals and general misunderstandings. Somehow, it still works into a fun story, even if it isn’t new or groundbreaking.
A movie like this is more about the story than the performances. That being said, Redmayne was a capable Newt Scamander. He plays quirky and dorky well, even if it isn’t a particularly meaty role. But, every Oscar winner is allowed to have some fun now and then. The problem with Redmayne’s Newt, though, is that he isn’t as instantly likable as Harry, Ron or Hermione. The audience cared deeply about those three kids and all their friends. Caring about Newt Scamander isn’t as easy.
Farrell’s recent resurgence came at a good time. He’s pleasant to watch, mostly because you can never quite be sure whether or not to trust him.
The women in the cast are all fine, but sometimes feel too predictable. This is particularly true of Samantha Morton’s villain. She is abusive and mean, adopting children with magical backgrounds for the sole purpose of beating the magic out of them. She never reveals her motives, however. But then, as we see in real life, sometimes people don’t need a reason to hate those who are different.
Katherine Waterston is likable as Tina and you want her to succeed, even with her slightly prickly exterior. But Alison Sudol as her younger sister is really fun to watch. She’s silly and flirtatious, but there is so much more under the surface. Sudol is good at revealing just enough about Queenie’s nature to keep her from becoming a caricature.
David Yates, who directed the second half of the Harry Potter films, is apparently already attached for all five of the Fantastic Beasts movies too. Oddly, he doesn’t give us nearly enough time enjoying the fantastic beasts. He does all right with Rowling’s overloaded script. His many nods to fans of the original series are nice touches. From mentions of Lestrange and Dumbledore to hippogriffs and nifflers, you’ll find yourself smiling a lot in appreciation. His Prohibition-era New York is delightful and gritty. It may not be perfect, but, like so many big films in 2016, it’s fine.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has been nominated for two Academy Awards: Costume Design for Colleen Atwood, and Production Design for Stuart Craig and Anna Pinnock. It might stand a chance in either of those categories in a year where “La La Land” hadn’t been the presumptive winner since its premiere.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is still in theaters and the sequel is due out next year. What’s next for the Harry Potter spin-offs? A series of Gilderoy Lockhart’s fabled exploits, perhaps? “Break with a Banshee” could be interesting.