“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” opens in 1926 as Newt Scamander has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident… were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
The world of Harry Potter finally goes beyond the adventures of schoolchildren at Hogwarts and into adult adventures in 1920s New York City. Wizards attempt to maintain some order and secrecy when pitted against wizard-despising societies. Secret underground locations become hangouts for wizards to indulge in the illegal concoction of giggle juice while an elf entertains with a somber song of unicorns. The American wizarding congress houses itself in a secret building of towering offices and wand polishing services in the lobby. It’s an amazing world that is a joy to get lost within. The characters that occupy it, however, are another story.
The protagonist for what is planned to be a new series of movies in the Harry Potter universe is Newt, a shy wizard played by a mumbling Eddie Redmayne in a frilly costume and unkempt hair. He’s a keeper of endangered magical creatures, containing them all within a pocket dimension inside his small suitcase. His zoo is a sight to behold with all sorts of wild creatures from lions with puffer fish throats to snake-dragons that can change shape and size. During a shopping trip to New York, Newt’s suitcase is opened and the beasts escape into the city, leaving Newt with the task of preventing New York City from turning into Jumanji.
A muggle (or no-maj as they’re known in America) by the name of Jacob (Dan Fogler) is wrapped into Newt’s problems by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As one of the few non-magic users of this plot, Jacob is a very likable character in hapless pursuit of helming his own bakery and his attraction to the perky wizard Queenie. He’s far more interesting to follow than that of Newt, who spends most of his screentime looking down, babbling about his creatures and refusing to talk about his past as he’s saving that story for another movie. Newt and Jacob could still make a great duo in their pursuit of escaped beasts and most of their antics in this arena are amusing.
But long-time Harry Potter author and first-time screenwriter J.K. Rowling couldn’t make such a simple story. She crowds the screen with lore and characters that often splinter into separate plots that only converge when forced to in the finale. There’s a destructive force ripping up New York City, spawned from a repressed wizard, that must be dealt with by the American wizard congress. The congress itself is backed up with cases and doesn’t have time to notice Colin Farrell as a high-ranking wizard working secretly with insiders of the anti-wizard league. Erza Miller finds himself conflicted as a boy beaten by his mother of an anti-wizard leader. Katherine Waterston plays an ex magic enforcer that tasks herself with bringing in Newt while the rest of congress is distracted. Did mention there’s a mayoral election going on as well that involves collusion with the press and concern for wizard rights?
All this juggling and stumbling of plotlines made me pine for the more simplistic story of Newt trying to snatch a magic mole out of a jewelry store or a rhino-hippo out of a zoo. These moments are fun, but come off more as whimsical filler for the far darker plot of a dark wizard. But all that leads up to is a slapped-together finale where a black particle storm rips up the city and Newt happens to pop up with the perfect status quo restoring device. How both convenient and cliche.
What ultimately saves this frustrating script is the beautiful direction by Harry Potter veteran director David Yates. He styles every scene to hold a sense of wonder and some originality to differentiate as much from the halls of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic. He can’t improve the characters or give us more time to admire their chemistry, but he can make them occupy some unforgettable sets with visually engrossing effects.
I guess what it all comes down tohis how much one can separate themselves from a messy script and enjoy the magical world established by Rowling and brought to the screen by Yates. There’s certainly plenty to like about the film on a surface level from the cinematography to the slapstick humor to the entrancing special effects, even if they all don’t merge as well as they should. I’m excited to see where this series can go now that it’s not bound by the restrictions of a school, but it’s going to take a lot more than fancy sets to make Newt’s journey an interesting one. Here’s hoping I won’t have to rely on giggle juice to appreciate this world.
You rated this film: 3
Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
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