J.K. Rowling is so much more than just a literary talent. Brilliant writer? Check. Inspirational dreamer? Double check. Certifiable marketing genius? She might as well be called Mrs. Draper after her latest adventure into the Harry Potter extended universe.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them faced a certain conundrum – how do you keep Potterheads excited without Daniel Radcliffe, Hogwarts or even Hedwig for that matter? Simple. Take advantage of a cultural phenomenon like Pokémon Go, and spin it with a wizarding twist. I mean, that’s what’s going on here (with a
little lot of Men In Black nostalgia). Some boy runs all over New York City capturing “fantastic beasts” while stuffing them inside an ever-expansive magic containment device (the briefcase substitutes as a Pokeball). Like the Potterverse needed any more pop-culture appeal, right? It’s not like director David Yates wasn’t familiar with Rowling’s world already…
Welcome to New York City, 1926. A young Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed his inquisitive excursion to track and document the habits of magical creatures. Upon his American arrival, one of his more curious pets runs loose in a bank. This is where he bumps into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj who becomes his new best friend, and Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States of America.
Tina ends up taking Newt to her superiors for violating strict wizard codes, but she’s shooed away. In the meantime, Jacob unleashes all of Newt’s fantastic beasts thanks to a careless briefcase mix-up – and so begins the hunt. Newt’s crew must locate all the beasts before Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) pins much drearier atrocities on Newt’s free-roaming friends, unless a larger evil exposes the magic world first. Or destroys it. Whichever is easier.
Fantastic Beasts is both a slice of magical monster mayhem and severely underwritten storytelling, landing somewhere between “pretty passable” and “zany fun” – but certainly nothing fantastic. Case and point: the Shaw family. Jon Voight stars as a newspaper magnate poised as this big-bad presence, yet his entire family’s inclusion amounts to an even more wasted “villain” than Marvel’s Ultron.
Rowling’s paper-thin script is padded more than an insecure teenage girl’s training bra, lumping morose mentions of self-hating wizards in with more jovial, rip-roaring beastie-huntin’ fun. It almost feels as if two warring movies are fighting for screen dominance, even if period 20s’ production remains absolutely delightful throughout. This isn’t a 2-hour movie – or, rather, it absolutely doesn’t have to be. ESPECIALLY with five more of these fantastical features planned.
The beasts themselves feel a bit suspect, even if Niffler is my new favorite never-will-have-but-want movie pet. Like most mainstream films of today, every colorful, tentacled monster is completely digital. There’s Niffler, an aardvark-looking pickpocket who loves shiny things (true OG), Bowtruckle aka “Hey guys, baby Groot is really popular so how about we make our own,” a Demiguise nicknamed Doogal aka WHY DID YOU REMIND ME THE MOVIE DOOGAL EXISTS – Bubble Rhino, Tentacle Elk, Tentacle Naked Mole Rat, etc. I think there was even a Ghastly cameo to nail down that Pokemon tie, too.
They’re all colorful, and some grandiose in stature, but when painted in regular 2D, these other-worldly zoo animals provide no spark of life or squee-worthy value. For a movie that boasts such an affinity towards jaw-dropping imaginary creations, Niffler is the only little guy I care to see more of – especially in a much-needed Niffler/Jason Statham heist spinoff.
That said, when Newt speeds down the cobblestone streets of a more primitive New York City, we forget about the emptiness of certain characters and interactions – even more so when Jacob tags along. I say with no sarcasm that I’m happy to see Dan Fogler get the mainstream appeal he so deserves, playing against Newt’s shy, excitable monster hunter. Jacob is a simple baker pulled into a world of spell-casting wands and an Obscurus scourge, who finds love with the squeaky-voiced telepathic sister of Tina, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Why did I love their relationship so much?
Because I have the biggest crush on Queenie. I’m not sure, but it’s a testament to the affable charms of Fogler’s dumbfounded sidekick.
Eddie Redmayne is fantastic as Newt Scamander, owning Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them much like Radcliffe’s own introduction. Charms are by way of darting gazes, an aversion to society and loving interactions with computer-generated monsters, impish in his reluctant heroism. Then he goes and mimics a Bubble Rhino mating ritual in the middle of an abandoned Central Park zoo – pure wizarding world buffoonery, adorable in its dynamism. For all the slightness of Rowling’s oppressive forces, Redmayne delivers one of his most likable roles to date throughout this urban hide-and-seek safari.
Those of you who think leaving Hogwarts will only bring a homesick feeling, I assure you that Rowling does some deepened world-building here in the US. Upon Newt’s arrival, we’re immediately ushered into the Magical Congress of the United States of America HQ – again, think Men In Black but with wizards and 20s garb. Trolls and law-breakers shamble around freely, out of sight from the general public.
As Newt gazes about, we too soak in the enchanting aura of a brand new realm of magical possibilities, giddy at the sight of house-elves dressed as old-timey elevator operators. Both Rowling (script) and Yates (visually) bring us back to a time where Orchard street hadn’t yet been taken over by hipster bars, and then inject this spectacle-sized dosage of wonder with a historical sheen – dare I say it’s a more inviting timeline than 80s Hogwarts?
Yet, we mustn’t forget how little of an impact the Shaws make, as they’re seemingly introduced because Ronan Raftery will be important as Langdon Shaw in future instalments. Furthermore, for me at least, Ezra Miller’s turn as Credence evokes a certain hamminess, as does Samantha Morton’s witch-hunting Mother Superior character, Mary Lou. As not to spoil anything, Miller is tasked with being beaten and abused by Morton, then manipulated as an informant for Percival Graves – a Colin Farrell character whose Auror presence is that of a renegade cop.
Quite frankly, these are the moments I could have lived without. Perpetual darkness looms over Credence and Mary Lou’s whole orphan congregation. So much less care is put into establishing a generic evil though and it simply can’t live up to Newt’s happier, more rambunctious creature-wrangling. As such, it’s impossible not to notice a stark contrast between scenes that dazzle and others that vapidly disconnect.
It’s with these 1,000 words that I confirm Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is pretty good – undoubtedly more appreciated by Pottermore registrants than cynical film critics. Real fans won’t care about dead-weight scripting and moments that seemingly float with no substance. They’ll be too busy crooning over Newt Scamander, Niffler, Bowtruckle and the whole gang.
J.K. Rowling introduces us to yet another immersive world of wonderment here, handled serviceably by David Yates and his team. Some beasts may not be as creatively blessed, and full CGI surely lets down a bit, but with a homie like Niffler, there’s no way you’ll leave Newt’s first adventure with a frown. Or your wallet, at that.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them introduces us to a wondrous world outside of our cinematic Potter knowledge, and works as a prime set-up even if substance is a bit slight.