A pleasant but slight distraction from the wickedness of 2016, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them turns back the clocks on the Harry Potter Universe to 1928 where the pesky Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic beasts have just entered New York City. Beasts earns points distinguishing itself from its predecessor by taking on a new time period, centering on an older (if still largely charming) cast and moving the action to America where new rules, regulations and verbiage (“muggles” are no more, “no-maj” being the US equivalent) prevail. There’s hints of magic peppered throughout – James Newton Howard’s electrifying score, sharp visual tricks up the sleeve, Eddie Redmayne’s recklessly crooked smile – but as a standalone installment, Fantastic Beasts certainly stops short living up to its titular adjective.
In prior Potter films, author J.K. Rowling served in a trumped-up consulting capacity, coming aboard the final two installments as a producer. Here, her role has been beefed up as takes on exclusive screenwriting rights. As her first and only screenwriting effort, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fails to build the same depth of intrigue she conjured within the long-form written page. Characters are alluring and quirky but they don’t necessarily lend themselves to a five film arc, which Rowling and director David Yates have stated they anticipate the series to last until.
Missing in large part are the weird idiosyncrasies, the spellbinding new world peculiarities and the taking it all in through a child’s eyes. Gone are the happy-go-lucky giants, invisible-to-the-eye train platforms and jelly beans that taste like vomit or grass. In their place, well, there’s just not a ton of new inventions. Which is a major disappointment, considering that Rowling penned it and all. There are however a plethora of the titular beasts and Yates spends no shortage of time playing around with them. Newt’s bumbling but doting relationship with his suitcase stuffed with mythical monsters proves to be one of the emotional cornerstones that work to Beast’s favor but some spotty CGI – Yates’ technological capacities certainly do not appear to have advanced since The Deathly Hallows – and an inordinate amount of time spent hunting through this, that or the other for said beasts gives the film a bit of a one-note mouthfeel. As the film progresses, a much-needed sinister angle takes shape that balances out the petting zoo qualities that occupies much of the first act.
When American Auror (think detective witch) Tina Goldstein (played confidently by Katherine Waterston) spies Newt accidentally loosing one of his beasts upon an unsuspecting bank, a beast noted for hoarding shiny, expensive objects no less, she takes the clumsy handler in for processing. But rather than an attagirl, Tina is met with derision and scorn at the hands of one Percival Graves (a mostly disappointing Colin Farrell) a government man who is quite obviously a wolf in sheep’s clothing for square one. Farrell makes for a perfunctory antagonist, his usual off-kilter charisma instead buried beneath humdrum anarchical motivations.
Graves is unquestionably tied to a series of destructive events – and the franchise’s new, but ok to namecheck, villain, Gellert Grindelwald that threaten to reveal the hidden magical world which would in turn throw off balance in an already uneasy relationship between the overwhelming majority of “no-majs” bustling about the Big Apple and the secretive magical beings also going about their business within it. A subplot that introduces a group of Salem-aspiring anti-witch extremists promises a palpable – and politically astute – threat that dissipates before its able to mature. Events tip into X-Men: The Last Stand’s Dark Phoenix territory and those potentially much more intriguing cards – a magically diverse society torn apart by disparate religious dogmas – are wiped from the table with a lethal Avada Kedavra.
This is after all a kid’s movie and even though Beasts takes us to some dark places, it doesn’t neglect its inescapable comedy quotient. Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol prove capable comic relief as Jacob Kowalski, a factory canner with bakery dreams, and Queenie Goldstein, a big-hearted witch with impressive telepathy abilities, respectively. But their roles, like the film, are light and frothy and mostly one-note. When curtain call comes, there journeys seem over and if anything, getting the gang back together already seems like it’s going to be a stretch. In effect, the Newt-Tina-Jacob-Queenie quartet fails to inspire the same camaraderie and emotional depths that the Ron-Hermoine-Harry triangle suggested even from its earliest days.
Yates, who took on directorial duties in the Potterverse in 2007 with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and has since to let them go, seems almost too comfortable behind the camera. His competence is unquestionable – the man is a wizard at making crowd-pleasing blockbusters on budget and on time – although his artistry seems workmanlike more than it ought. This is a world of magic, of mystery, of supernatural wonders. That it sometimes feels mechanical and by-the-numbers speaks to the possibility that maybe a new voice with something fresh to say may have been the better choice. As is, the product is crisp and clean and looks like as shiny and expensive as a 180 million dollar blockbuster should but its missing that game changing, mystically inventive razzle-dazzle that the original Potter offered 15 years back.
The third act, while bolstered by an unexpectedly enchanting – though still regrettably minor – turn from Ezra Miller, turns to banal city-destruction. Seeing Newt and Co. bind together to halt malevolent forces of evil is not enough to make up for what is otherwise a rather bland and monotonous threat. Stirring Johnny Depp into the mix is not the solution I would have hoped for and gives me legitimate cause for concern going forward.
One needn’t clairvoyance to see that Beasts – like a dragon atop a goldmine – is bound for inevitable success. But that success alone should not dictate the quality of its origins and with too many seemingly useless subplots to get into – Jon Voight as a newspaper man and his besmirched senator son take the cake for narrative superfluousness – I’ll be rubbing my talisman that the many gestated sequels will wave its wand and magically add layers to what J.K. Rowling has set in motion here. It doesn’t take a dose of Veritaserum though to make me admit that I would prefer to see one excellent spin-off than have to hope that what comes later will amend the issues herewithin.
CONCLUSION: More cute than classic, J.K. Rowling’s return to the wizarding world is filled with good charm, alluring visual sorcery and an enchanting new cast of characters but also serves as undeniable proof the rags-to-riches author is no alchemist who turns everything she touches to gold. While there’s fun to be had with ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, at this current juncture, its windy but one-note nature proves it has a long way to go to live up to the sterling legacy of Harry Potter.