Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 3/7/17 1:50am

I did not plan on reviewing “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” but after the Nugget Theater decided at the last minute not to play “Logan” and after the Hopkins Center’s screening of “Kedi” was sold out, I realized it was just about the only option left to me. Much of the reason I didn’t want to review “Fantastic Beasts” was because I didn’t want to write the negative review that I was sure would come.

There is no reason I shouldn’t have loved “Fantastic Beasts.” I grew up on the “Harry Potter” books and frankly, the film series is about as good of an adaptation as any of us could expect. The third entry, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” remains to this day one of my favorite films of all time. So, when Warner Brothers announced plans for a “Fantastic Beasts” film series, I was skeptical but cautiously optimistic. I was worried the new series would tarnish the original “Potter” movies, but I also desperately wanted another look at J.K. Rowling’s magical world of “witchcraft and wizardry.” And I will say this for “Fantastic Beasts:” it does show you more of Rowling’s world, albeit covered in layers upon layers of passable, yet unimpressive, computer-generated imagery.

Audiences are transported to 1926 and introduced to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British “magizoologist” with an expanding suitcase full of creatures who arrives in New York City at the beginning of the film. After a few scenes, his story ... well, it gets rather complicated. All you need to know is that when the creatures escape from his suitcase, he teams up with a witch named Tina (Katherine Waterson), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a “No-Maj,” or an American “Muggle,” named Jacob (Dan Fogler) to bring them back before the magic world is exposed. Together, they are pursued by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a stone-faced American Auror (read: wizard police) who has an unusual interest in Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the adopted son of a woman who leads “The Second-Salemers,” an anti-magic advocacy group.

The film is set against the backdrop of a series of murders committed by dark wizard Gellert Grindewald, whose violence begins driving the wizarding world to a state of terror. This, along with the “Second-Salemers” subplot, seems to allude to darker events in today’s world. While themes of terrorism, paranoia and discrimination have always played a role in the “Harry Potter” universe, they were previously balanced by themes of friendship, maturity and love. However, in “Fantastic Beasts,” the darkness begins to overwhelms the more light-hearted content. I don’t have a problem with political and social commentary appearing in my fantasy cinema, but I have no idea what Rowling was trying to accomplish. Newt’s story is bright and almost silly, yet it feels buried beneath an endless sea of rather dour subplots. Half of the time I felt as though he was a supporting character in his own movie.

That being said, Redmayne is perfectly enjoyable as Newt. Waterson’s performance is probably one of the highlights of the movie, and I’m glad that she and Newt weren’t forced to partake in a trite romance. Sadly, that is saved for Queenie and Jacob in one of the film’s most underwritten subplots. Neither actor is bad, but their chemistry is woefully unconvincing.

Furthermore, Farrell is a good actor, but he looks totally lost here. I honestly wonder if he still thinks he’s filming “True Detective” and simply can’t comprehend why the production team is asking him to wave a stick in front of a green screen.

Rowling, who wrote the film’s screenplay, is an extremely talented and inventive author; I have no doubt that she will continue to produce excellent work. However, I’m not yet sure that she’s much of a screenwriter. Many of the film’s problems are tied to the fact that she doesn’t seem to fully understand how cinematic language works. Her books are filled with whimsical descriptions that detail every aspect of her fully-developed magical world. In that medium, Rowling can spend as many pages as she wants describing the rules of Quidditch or explaining the layout of Hogwarts. But films need visuals to translate those descriptions with as little dialogue as possible. Rowling’s screenplay just doesn’t seem conducive to that need, resulting in a bizarre mixture of clunky exposition alongside unexplained phenomenon.

I wish, more than anything, that I could talk about the ending, but I have a policy against spoilers. Nonetheless, there are two points I want to make. First, the “twist” at the end is predictable, despite any hope that such an ending would not exist because if it is true, then the rest of the film makes no sense. Second, the ending also relies on the concept of “planting and payoff,” but the screenplay handles the “plant” so poorly that the “payoff” can’t help but feel like a deus ex machina.

Despite my support for the “Harry Potter” films, I left the theater disappointed and a little frustrated after watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It’s by no means an awful film. David Yates, who directed the last four “Potter” films, clearly understands how to film this world. At this point, though, I would have thought that he and Rowling would bring out the best in each other. I didn’t hate watching this film, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience. And I would never have thought that I wouldn’t enjoy a “Harry Potter” related story. But there you have it.

Rating: 4/10