A film review by Craig J. Koban November 26, 2016


2016, PG-13, 133 mins.


Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander  /  Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski  /  Katherine Waterston as Porpentina Goldstein  /  Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein  /  Samantha Morton as Mary Lou  /  Colin Farrell as Percival Graves  /  Ron Perlman as Gnarlack  /  Ezra Miller as Credence  /  Jenn Murray as Chastity  /  Jon Voight as Henry Shaw, Sr  /  Carmen Ejogo as Seraphina Picquery

Directed by David Yates  /  Written by J.K. Rowling, based on her book



This movie is not for me.  

When it comes to the HARRY POTTER literary and cinematic universes, I'm an introverted muggle (Potter slang for non wizard...or in my case...non-fan of the series).  

It's true, I've been very critical of the decade-plus spanning movie franchise based on the iconic and cherished novels by J.K. Rowling, which ringed eight movies out of seven books, a move that had - in the latter stages - more to do with Hollywood accounting than it did with artistic imperatives.  To the legions of die hard Potterites, these films are essentially critic proof.  Those devotees have joyously thrilled to the big screen adventures of Harry and company since 2001, whereas I found myself more exhausted than exhilarated by them.  In short, I tolerated the HARRY POTTER films, but never found myself in a state of euphoric love with the franchise. 

This brings me to, of course, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM, which is, yes, a prequel film (not a terrific industry buzz descriptor) to the established HARRY POTTER movies, set seven decades before the events of THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE and with a change in geographical venue to America (specifically New York).  The film takes its name from the Rowling penned book of the same name (she also marks he feature film screenwriting debut here), which in turn is also the name of a required-reading textbook in Hogwarts in the distant future.  On a positive, FANTASTIC BEASTS is agreeably segregated apart from the previous HARRY POTTER films, but it does contain subtle and obvious references to those very films and their mythology.  Even though it perhaps feels more like an introductory placeholder effort for bigger and better films to come in a new Potter universe series (four more films are planned), FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is nevertheless handsomely produced and entertaining in the right dosages.   



A new hero is introduced very early on in the form of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a young zoologist/wizard that strongly believes in caring for, protecting, and preserving "fantastical beasts" that many others in the wizard community shun.  He collects them in a large briefcase, which may seem like a highly impractical location to house a zoo, but it's no ordinary briefcase, seeing as once Newt climbs inside of it he's magically transported to a mystical and vast wildlife preserve.  Newt wishes to continue his studies in America, and in the introductory scenes we see him arriving in New York in the mid-1920's and trying to bluff his way through immigration (the officials would hardly buy his story, not to mention that revealing anything that would tip off humanity to the wizarding way of life is strictly forbidden). 

Unfortunately, and rather predictably, some of these creatures do indeed escape, causing havoc in a surprisingly and conveniently depopulated Big Apple at times (that, and when people are around they seem to have an inability to notice said creatures parading around causing problems).  In his attempts to round up the escaped animals, Newt accidentally switches briefcases with an aspiring baker Jacob (Dan Fogler), which causes him to reveal himself and his kind to this muggle (known as a "no-maj" to Yankees).  The Magical Congress of the United States of America doesn't take kindly to Newt's mistakes while on their territory, which leads them to sending in their chief investigator Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to hunt down Newt.  Thankfully for him, Newt is befriended by a low level MCUSA agent named Porpentina (Katherine Waterson), who realizes that her agency will require Newt's help to round up his escape beasts.  Complicating an already complicated plot is a pseudo religious zealot (Samantha Morton) that wants to expose wizards and their kind.  She has a peculiar and introverted son (Ezra Miller) that seems far too emotionally unstable to be a simple no-maj. 

One thing to admire in FANTASTIC BEASTS is its sumptuous and bravura recreation of a bygone era.  Director David Yates (who made the last several HARRY POTTER films and most recently THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) has assembled a crack squad of production and costume designers, art directors, and visual effects artists to painstakingly re-create New York of the Roaring Twenties.  To me, the biggest attraction of the film is not its titular creatures, but rather its Jazz Age evocation of America, which culminates in one of the best scenes involving Newt and his allies trying to curb favors with a speak easy owner named Gnarlack (a motion captured Ron Pearlman), who's an Al Capone styled gangster morphed with a goblin.   It's at stages like this in FANTASTIC BEASTS when you can sense the unbridled visual imagination on successful display.  This is one of the finest looking HARRY POTTER films (prequel or not) and one that reassuringly doesn't completely require an intimate knowledge of the previous films to thoroughly immerse oneself in. 

The visual effects are reliably good, even though there are instances here and there when humans make physical contact with the beasts that's not entirely convincing, especially considering the film's borderline $200 budget.  FANTASTIC BEASTS has fun, though, in showing the zoo-like realm housed within Newt's briefcase, which is colorfully vibrant and alive.  I only wished, though, that the beasts themselves in the film were...well...more fantastical, many of which seem a bit too cute, cuddly, and inspired to become toys for their own good.  There's one that's a cross between an elephant and a hippo with a rather ravenous sexual appetite (not good) and another pint-sized twig-like being that looks conspicuously like a Baby Groot from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  I did like the duck-like beastie that has an irresistible obsession with stealing gold and jewellery; but it's kind of laughable how no one at Macy's Department store notices this strange little monster pocketing watches and pearl necklaces. 

Performances in the film are a mixed bag lot.  The addition of Colin Farrell to the series is a welcome one, seeing as he brings an unpredictable level of soft spoken menace to the proceedings, even while playing a character that's egregiously underwritten.  Katherine Waterson and Alison Sodul (who plays a wizard that can read minds) give the film a flirtatious aura of whimsicality.  Dan Fogler is surprisingly good in the comic relief supporting role as his baker that's baffled - alongside the audience - by everything that's transpiring in the film.  One perplexing and distracting oddity in FANTASTIC BEASTS is its lead protagonist.  Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Newt is, at times, so bizarrely monosyllabic and off-puttingly quirky that that I seriously questioned whether or not I wanted to journey on through another series of films with this character.  Redmayne's mumbles, mumurs, and peculiar body language in the film makes Newt less likeable and more unintentionally creepy than he should be.  That, and he's not a particularly interesting character on paper that commands our rooting interest. 

That allows me to segue into the bigger problems that befall this HARRY POTTER spin-off effort - there are a lot of characters being introduced here that, no doubt, will be elaborated on further in subsequent sequels.  Regrettably, many get sidelined here and have subplots introduced that mournfully get left unresolved.  FANTASTIC BEASTS also seems to be lacking a fundamentally striking villainous presence in its story, and when some are revealed in the late stages of the narrative it almost feels like a haphazard afterthought.  FANTASTIC BEASTS also inspires many questions about its own internal logic regarding the wizards and their usage of magic that, frankly, it never answers.  Like, for example, how are wizards able to wave their wands and instantly reconstruct destroyed buildings at will...but when battling magic dispensing enemies all they seem capable of is shooting out energy balls from these same wands? 

Again, maybe I've missed something.  And again, I'm not an enthusiastically well versed man when it comes to Rowling's world.  As an outsider looking in, there's much to admire here, which is probably why I'm giving the film a marginal pass and recommendation, but parts of me don't think I should.  Perhaps I've just grown too tired of resisting future HARRY POTTER films and instead want to submit myself to them.  FANTASTIC BEASTS will undoubtedly please Rowling fundamentalists and entertain the no-majs in the audience, despite the nagging uncertainty of my unwillingness to sit through several more of these films, which seems like a move born out of box office dollar signs illuminating over studio executives heads (what other reason would their be to turn a 128 page book into five feature films?).  FANTASTIC BEASTS may be a pathetically obvious cash grab enterprise, but it's a reasonably well made cash grab.  And as far as prequels go, this one has more magic than most.



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