Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Running Time: 133 min.
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight
Small role: Dan Hedaya, Ron Perlman, Johnny Depp, Zoe Kravitz
Director: David Yates
Screenplay: J.K. Rowling
Review published November 27, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a prequel spinoff to the highly lucrative Harry Potter series of movies, based on the name of one of the textbooks that Harry Potter himself would come to study during his stint at Hogwarts. Though the narrative isn't based on something J.K. Rowling may have written in long form, the makers of this film still cater to the lovers of her work by enlisting her services for the screenplay. As Rowling's story here features almost exclusively adults, there's a decidedly mature approach to this new proposed five-film series.
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, Jupiter Ascending) stars as klutzy magizoologist Newt Scamander, the author of the future guide of magical creatures that exist in this world and, of course, where they may be found. Set mostly in New York City in 1926, we find those who can work magic living in a world where the No-Majs (American usage for 'Muggles'), aka, those who have no powers to speak of, are kept in the dark to all of the fantastic things going on around them due to spells of 'obliviation', which erases their memories of them.
Scamander arrives in New York with a magical suitcase chock full of his magical creatures, highly illegal to possess in these parts, with the intention of releasing one of the most magnificent among them, a Thunderbird, in the wilds of Arizona. However, in a mishap, that suitcase is swapped with one belonging to a struggling No-Maj factory worker and baker named Jacob Kowalski (Fogler, Europa Report), who ignorantly ends up releasing a bunch of the forbidden creatures out into the public. In this environment, the wizards have their own factions and the No-Majs have an upstart group known of more zealous elements bent on weeding them out, though there is a struggle for power even within those ranks with people forging forward with their own agendas for wanting to expose the secret society of magic existing within the city.
Call this Harry Potter meets 'Pokemon GO' meets Men in Black, as this film features a lot of magical creatures of many varieties that must be caught out in the public streets, but also that the American citizens must continuously have their memories erased whenever they catch sight of something they shouldn't, for fear that mass hysteria will ensue. Partially because of this familiarity, and partially because these characters and their situations aren't exactly rife with sufficient build-up to be invested in their motivations, Fantastic Beasts remains mostly inert, putting all of its emphasis on its technical achievements to deliver anything above standard movie fare.
In order to tie in Fantastic Beasts with the Harry Potter, at least in terms of tone, Warner Bros. retains the services of David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan, Deathly Hallows Pt. 2), director of the final four of the eight films in the Harry Potter saga. In some ways, that's good in terms of giving the fans of the films a ready-made familiarity in order to get instantly invested in the story, but at the same time, it would have been more compelling to see this new saga differentiate itself further beyond the characters and locale, rather than play things safe within the confines of its formula. Yates did carry through a sense of gravitas throughout his films, pushing forward the whimsy to the edges, which he also does in Fantastic Beasts, which also is to its detriment. There is no sense of that awe we should surely feel at seeing those "fantastic beasts" because Yates knows that we know that we've seen it all before, and never plays up any of what we see as extraordinary as they would be within a society that knows no magic at all.
What Fantastic Beasts is riding upon is that it will deliver enough visual spectacle to give viewers something to admire, while also doing the drudge work of having to set up for future entries. As such, it's not a very compelling start, perhaps because J.K. Rowling herself has penned the script, which carries a lot of clout for fans of the franchise, sufficient that they couldn't really change a great deal from her intent, which, given this is her first produced screenplay, means that Yates' hands are tied in terms of being creative with these characters, their dialogue, or the sequence of situations as they play out in the plot. And plot-heavy it is as this point, which makes the pathos we came to feel for Harry, Hermione and Ron over the course of their storyline feel stunted in order to continue all of the table-setting required for its sequels down the road.
Rowling's narrative writing style might work better in the novel form, where explorations into the nature of the beasts and the backgrounds of all of these characters could be explored in full before they are set in motion. In fact, most of the joys of reading Rowling comes in the way she builds the worlds that the characters we are to follow will inhabit. But there's no luxury here in the film form, as we have to get to the meat of the matter first, then have to play catch-up with what's going on along the way, which is a far lesser enjoyable experience. Also, the premise rides on the notion that we're going to be entertained merely by the sight of 'fantastic beasts', but in this day and age of seeing over a dozen films a year set in a fantasy world where anything and everything is shown in rich visual detail, it takes a great deal more than creature design for us to be wowed in our seats.
Though those unfamiliar to the Harry Potter films should, presumably, be able to follow this offshoot that take place before the events of what came before, the way the storyline is structured is meant to build up to those other eight films, so this may be a case of diminishing returns for those who don't want to dive back and get up to speed. Easter eggs will abound, but there isn't so much fan service, at least not in this first entry, that the storyline is compromised to the point of unintelligibility.
To be fair, it wasn't until the 5th Harry Potter film, The Order of the Phoenix, until I was truly on board the franchise to be invested enough to see where things might develop. Given that the Fantastic Beasts series is only intended to be five films in itself, I'm hoping that the powers-that-be behind any follow-ups can address the storytelling and character investment problems of Fantastic Beasts sooner, or it is going to be a long cinematic slog for this film critic, and for many fans hoping for a return of the "magic" of Harry Potter. This one lives in a luxuriously presented but soullessly obligatory world.
©2016 Vince Leo