By Erico Lotufo
BU News Service
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a frustrating flick. It has the typical “Harry Potter” movie qualities, such as beautiful effects and fantastic art direction, and its missteps, too, such as a script with severe structure and pacing problems. While fans will be happy to see the magic on-screen, the film never goes beyond being a very high-budget, feature-length television pilot.
J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, pens the script, but she doesn’t seem confident in the premise of her own tale. Instead, Rowling decided to make this a prequel tale of sorts to the original saga. While she would have to conjure a story anyway (after all, the book on which it’s based is just a magical creature encyclopedia featuring witty commentary by Harry Potter and his friend Ron), there is barely any reason to tie this to her spin-off book.
The “Fantastic Beasts” portion is relegated to opening each of the movie’s three acts, and they are all fun, whimsical action scenes. Each magical creature has personality, like the Niffler’s greed for shiny objects, the Erumpent’s exotic and complex mating dance, and the cute Bowtruckle’s trust issues.
However, these moments are separated by less-than-fantastic fare. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) plays an oddball British wizard that has an easier time befriending magical beasts than other humans. Not surprisingly, he is cataloguing and preserving these creatures from a less-than-understanding wizarding community.
He comes to New York, where mysterious events are threatening to expose magic to the No-Majs (non-magical folk, called “Muggles” in the UK-based main series). He is held responsible after news comes out that a few of his beasts escaped from his magical suitcase and must find out what the truth is behind what’s happening to clear his name.
Joining him is former Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and No-Maj/audience-surrogate Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who gets swept up into the events after a series of run-ins with Scamander. They’re chased by Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who also has a personal agenda outside of his government-ordered chase involving getting information from an abused orphan (Ezra Miller), who lives with a fear-mongering No-Maj woman.
They fill in the main parts of the movie, in between the antics with magical creatures, and it’s dreadfully boring. This is in part because none of them have anything resembling a character arc: Scamander’s past is alluded to, but left for the sequel to explain; Tina has no development outside of falling for the hero, and Queenie for Kowalski. The No-Maj gets close to developing somewhat, but it never goes beyond, “Wow, this magic stuff is great!”
When “Fantastic Beasts” was announced, a trilogy was planned. Now, it’s a five-part movie series. This first one, however, resembles more of a television pilot than an actual opening film to a franchise. Various threads are introduced without being developed any further, like how TV shows hint several different storylines in the pilot to tease the audience for the rest of the season.
It’s frustrating to see such an awesome spin-off TV show concept (“Fantastic Beasts” seems to be made for episodic storytelling, with all its different creatures, and Newt Scamander being the closest one can get from writing “The Doctor” from Doctor Who in a different universe) wasted on a prequel-movie series to Harry Potter that doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with its own premise. The film stalls for time, hoping you don’t notice that nothing has happened, other than a 133-minute set-up to a Dumbledore origin story.
Sometimes “Fantastic Beasts” hints that it could have had a more interesting plot tied to the critters: Scamander is a black sheep of the wizarding world because he wants to protect deadly creatures whose unpredictability threatens to expose the magical world to No-Majs. It’s a fascinating discussion: the human-versus-nature plot gets dark undertones when it’s the wizarding community turning on its own magic for self-preservation. Unfortunately, this only gets mentioned a couple of times.
In the end, it’s disappointing to see a movie that succeeds when it follows its own premise but is too embarrassed to follow through until the end. What we get is a placeholder plot that sometimes wants to be great, but mostly prefers to underwhelm. Harry Potter fans will probably be ecstatic to return to J.K. Rowling’s world, but I bet that after the series is complete, most will look back to the first movie as just somewhat entertaining filler.