Taking the wizarding world introduced to us over the eight film Harry Potter franchise and planting it right into the roaring 1920’s, there’s a lot to like about Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. Yet, scattered among the visual delights of the film, you’ll find an odd plot, and some incredibly grim detours which left me wondering: who is this movie for?
Taking the title, and, ostensibly, it’s lead, from a textbook mentioned in glowing terms in the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is the story of Newt Scamander (Oscar award winner Eddie Redmayne, as awkward and properly British as ever). Scamander travels to New York City in 1926, carrying with him a mysterious case. The case is magic, of course, and is filled with countless creatures that Scamander has captured to study and train the wizard world to no longer fear.
Scamander isn’t even in New York for a few minutes when a number of his fantastic beasts start to escape from his case, turning the movie into just as you’d think – an extended search for his lost pets.
What’s interesting – and somewhat confusing – is how this plot is really just used to give us glimpses into a bigger, more interesting story, one of the state of the American wizard culture. In 1920’s America, wizards have been driven underground, ever scared of a war with the non-magical members of society, or “no-maj” as they’re called here. It seems we yanks don’t get a word as cool as muggles. Ah well.
The bigger story involves the Magical Congress of the United States of America, sort of a police force for wizards, and a dark wizard named Grindelwald, who is apparently plotting in secret to attack the human world and kickstart the great war the Magical Congress is trying hard to prevent. There’s even a harsh anti-witch and wizard group (seen as crazy by humans, like there’s ANYTHING magical) called the New Salem Society, which is one of the most intriguing ideas within the film (scripted by JK Rowling, her first screenplay after seven Potter novels).
But even with strong ideas, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them never truly gels as a cohesive whole.
I’m not entirely sure what the direction was for this movie. Was it to be a fun, family-friendly romp with the wacky Newt looking for his lost creatures? Or was it to be something bigger and darker involving the thin-growing-thinner separation between wizards and humans, including the incredibly dark truths behind the New Salem Society?
I’m not sure I could tell you, because here they are put together in a way that doesn’t quite feel natural. The Potter films grew into their darkness, mirroring the worries and fears of growing old and learning more about the world around you. Here, they’re smashed together with little want for explanation.
Even with that – there are strong moments of CG related beauty, of incredible, heartwarming creatures created by wonderful artists and indelible moments of (as cheesy as it sounds) magic, as could only be brought on screen by a director as well versed in Rowling’s world as David Yates has been.
Performances are generally solid, with the strongest coming from supporting actors Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski, a no-maj brought into this mess, and indie-rocker Alison Sudol making her acting debut as the bewitching (heh) Queenie Goldstein, a mindreader. Their scenes, both solo and together, are the strongest heart of the film – but everyone else seems somewhat lost and looking for a moment to shine.
Redmayne’s Scamander really seems like a bystander to a bigger plot, Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) is somewhat bland as Scamander’s sidekick Tina, a shame given how strong of an actor she normally is. Even Colin Farrell tries to bring his veteran chops to the film, but is lost to the story as auror Percival Graves, who in a third-act-twist is rendered almost nonsensical in his act or existence.
With Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I find myself at an odd crossroads with the Wizarding World. There are enough moments worth seeing that if you are at all a Potter fan, you must see it, but after one viewing, I’m not sure if there is enough to explore in another installment…let alone four. I fear we may have another Hobbit on our hands, but I hope that this may just be a mea culpa.
Perhaps this one is best waited on for VOD.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is in theaters now.