FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Nothing can ever just be left alone anymore. Once the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 released in 2011, we all thought the franchise would be laid to rest. Not on J.K. Rowling’s watch. After her attempts at writing more mature fiction yielded lukewarm returns, she’s made a recent resurgence in more ways than one. First, she started releasing new written material, expanding the universe on her website Pottermore, to tepid fan reaction. Her apparently awful stage play sequel, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child premiered this last summer. Now, she’s taken her first crack at screenwriting with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a prequel/spin-off sort of series. She certainly is the new George Lucas, if I’ve ever seen one.

Extremely loosely based on the 128 page “textbook” about all of the crazy Harry Potter creatures, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows British wizard and magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). After traveling around the world rescuing various magical creatures, he stops by the United States for… reasons I don’t think were ever really explained. A contrived series of events causes Newt’s magical briefcase to fall into the wrong hands and unleash a herd of fantastical monsters in New York City. As Newt and his new friends attempt to reclaim the beasts, the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) attempts to keep the events under wraps, in order to prevent war with the No-Maj’s (non-magical people).

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. There was so much stuff going on this movie, where it felt like two completely separate plots at first. Nothing seamlessly moved together and the pacing was odd, especially in the beginning. So much action, world building, and character introducing is thrown at you. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of direction in the storytelling. Some character motivations were unclear and at times it seemed a little incoherent. This is clearly J.K. Rowling’s first screenplay, as it’s written like one of her novels, but without all of the informative text, it doesn’t register at times. I spent portions of the movie somewhat confused. I’ve read all of the Harry Potter books and have seen all of the films. I’m not a fanatic, but I’m also not some filthy peasant who says “leviosA” either. Maybe a bit more background would have helped, but the film should be able to stand on its own. The ‘Harry Potter’ series had a central character with a simple storyline. This one seems a bit more muddled in what it’s trying to accomplish.

Returning to the universe was a real treat, though. Director David Yates returns behind the camera after directing the last four Harry Potter films. He’s received a lot of criticism for his dull and lifeless direction, as well as making the series feel “less magical”, but I felt he was a lot more creative here. That could be due to the setting not being confined to a prep school with kids, and thus we have a lot more experienced wizards, in more high stakes scenarios, doing much cooler magic. The change of setting from the UK to the US could have also helped, making the world feel more grand and realized. The little cultural and legal differences between the wizarding worlds of the two countries established were very interesting and clever, but like the other themes, get a little too blatant. At one point our lead says “humans are the worst animals of all,” as he walks through his animal conservation environment. Nonetheless, it was all of this new world building that ended up being the most interesting. Rowling is setting up a lot of stuff, so let’s hope she delivers and it remains this intriguing.

While the brisk pace and whimsical tone added to the overall fun and charm, a couple more respites would have been nice. It was relieving when the film slowed down and the characters just got to talk and know each other. All of ours stars here are fantastic. While the character of Newt Scamander is sort of dull, Eddie Redmayne brings a sweet earnestness to the role in his love for the creatures around him, making you actually care about their well being and empathizing with his plight. Dan Fogler steals the show as Newt’s No-Maj sidekick. Not only is he the most interesting character, but he’s also the most fun. He’s practically the main character, as he has the most development, motivation, and emotional attachment.

Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol round out the entourage, portraying a pair witch sisters with opposite, but very defined personalities. There’s actually a very sweet romance subplot between Fogler and Sudol, which I didn’t’ mind, as the two had excellent chemistry and made our group of heroes a bit more dynamic. Colin Farrell was great, too, as the cunning, mysterious Percival Graves, carrying a great aura of mystique around him. Rowling has always been great with alluring, fun characters, and she’s no slouch here. Let’s just hope Newt will be a bit more interesting next time around. It’s funny that all of the side characters were more interesting than the main, so fingers crossed they return in one of the four (ugh) sequels.

All in all, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a surprisingly entertaining prequel to the ‘Harry Potter’ universe. Funny enough, there are some tinges of ‘Star Wars’ prequel elements throughout. Incoherent storytelling, increased world building, more (sometimes atrocious) CGI. Unlike those prequels, though, this is actually fun, has interesting characters, and there are some neat places the story can be taken. Rowling may be the new George Lucas, but she at least seems to still have an understanding of what made her original series work. It’s a shame that she and Warner Bros. couldn’t just let sleeping dogs lie, but for what we got, it was a decent effort. Let’s just hope they know where to find a fantastic script next time.

6/10

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