J.K. Rowling wrote her first novel over a period of years, based on an idea that came to her on a long train journey. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone went on to become a worldwide sensation and inspired multiple books and a highly-successful film series.
Rowling wrote her first original screenplay after Warner Bros. approached her to transform her book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into a movie, prompting the novelist to come up with her own ideas for the script. The result is a visually spectacular movie that revolves around thinly-drawn characters and is frequently beset by a sense of doom.
Set in a ‘wizarding world’ alternative universe, the story begins in 1926 New York. In the U.S., the magical community keeps itself hidden, though events in Europe threaten to pull back the veils of secrecy, as a dastardly wizard named Gellert Grindelwald has been stirring up trouble that has gained wide attention. Into this turbulent environment walks the very shy and soft-spoken Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British ‘magizoologist’ who is heading home from his travels cataloging magical creatures.
First, though, Newt must stop to buy a gift, which is only available in New York. Things quickly get complicated because of an old, faulty luggage case. Newt has collected a group of fantastic beasts on his travels and is temporarily storing them in the case, but one of them gets loose and havoc soon follows.
After a few misadventures, Newt ends up teamed with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a would-be baker and “No-Maj” (non-magical human); Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who has recently lost her position as an “Auror” (investigator) with the official Magical Congress in the U.S.; and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is also magically-endowed and works in the wand registry office at the Magical Congress.
They are an affable quartet, and divide up nicely into two couples, which comes in handy when the humorless Magical Congress head of security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) makes clear his evil intentions, which revolves around Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), a humorless human leader of a protest group that wants to expose modern-day witchcraft, and her three children, most notably the sullen and haunted Credence (Ezra Miller).
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the opening chapter in what is now envisioned to be a five-part series. As such, portents for future installments are scattered throughout the movie and characterizations are kept to a minimum. The story that is told is foreshortened, and sequences that are intended to dazzle the eye are extended beyond their useful purpose.
Theoretically, the combination of a slender story and prolonged visual distractions could work as a kind of high-class b-movie, especially when built around a well-qualified cast. Too often, however, the actors are left stranded, high and dry. Eddie Redmayne is certainly a wonderful actor when given quality material, but Newt Scamander is rather an expressionless character, given to staring into space and not evincing any emotions.
It’s impossible to accept Newt as the leader of anything or anyone. or even to be the object of affection by Tina Goldstein. For her part, Tina is a loyal yet incompetent investigator. Whatever her strengths as a character might prove to be, here is she most often lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Like Redmayne, Katherine Waterston is fully qualified, but it kinda hurts to see her restraining her strengths.
As Queenie, Alison Sudol only has one personality trait to play — kooky — and while she’s fine at doing that, it grows tiresome as the story progresses and no hidden talents are revealed. Kowalski, however, brings life and human to the tale, and Dan Fogler does a good job in portraying his humorous countenance.
With the four Harry Potter installments that he directed, David Yates showed he could manage special effects along with strong stories, but with this summer’s The Legend of Tarzan, he reminded that he too is limited by the material he has to work with.
The visual effects are very well done, but those hoping for a high-quality, stand-alone fantasy adventure will inevitably be let down.
The film opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, November 18.