You’d think it would be damn near impossible to make a film about magical creatures and wizards in 1920s New York boring. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them marks a return to the big screen of the wizarding world J.K. Rowling made famous with her Harry Potter series. Those eight films, based on seven books, varied in quality but were mostly pretty good for big money-raking studio blockbusters. David Yates, who directed the last four Potter films – and did a great job, I think – returns to helm this first Potter-less expansion of Rowling’s universe. Rowling herself wrote the script here, which is partly based on her fake Hogwarts textbook of the same name and follows that book’s fictional author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), as he travels to New York with a suitcase full of the titular fantastic beasts. After some lazy tropes result in said beasts escaping into the city, Scamander sets about retrieving them, whilst getting embroiled in America’s wizarding community.
I think the ambition this film occasionally exhibits in terms of its intersecting characters, and the larger plot arcs it seems to hint at are admirable, but there just isn’t enough of this stuff. Instead we get Scamander running around the city, meeting characters much more interesting than himself and recapturing one creature after another in what are mostly pretty dull or poorly executed set pieces (although one towards the end involving a teapot is quite well done).
One of the major problems with Fantastic Beasts is its protagonist. I don’t dislike Eddie Redmayne and he’s not a bad actor by any means. (Earlier in his career he had a fantastic role in 2010’s Black Death, which is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking film.) The problem is with the character he has to play, who’s about as charismatic as a dead fish. He has no motivation or personality besides his humanitarian efforts to help witches and wizards understand magical creatures rather than fearing them – which is a perfectly legitimate motivation to have, but there’s basically nothing else to him, aside from a few awkward tics that are supposed to read as idiosyncrasies but just seem like Rowling pulled them from her handbook of quirky character clichés. This results in a flat, dull character who comes off as a kind of diet Doctor Who.
Helping Redmayne in his quest are disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), her incredibly charming telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Dan Fogler’s sweet, bumbling No-Maj (the American equivalent of a muggle), Kowalski. There’s a lovely chemistry between Queenie and Kowalski that forms the emotional spine of the film; Sudol and Fogler are two of the best characters here, and will hopefully have a lot more to do in the inevitable sequels. Waterston is fine, but like Redmayne she doesn’t have much to work with. Hopefully Ridley Scott lets her stretch her legs in his upcoming Prometheus sequel.
Ron Perlman shows up briefly in mo-cap as a goblin gangster, and Samantha Morton does her best as the leader of an anti-magic group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society. Ezra Miller plays one of her foster children, Credence Barebone, who’ll no doubt have a much larger roll to play in the sequels, and hopefully get a better haircut.
Colin Farrell’s Auror Percival Graves is gravelly and menacing as the closest thing the film has to an antagonist, but his character doesn’t unfold much beyond this, and is given short shrift with the ending’s spoilerific shenanigans. His character becomes so pointless by this time and really just serves to illustrate the wizarding world’s glaring ineptitude at dealing with the bad guys.
As everybody knows by now, Johnny Depp pops up briefly as dark wizard Grindelwald at the end, sporting weird hair and contacts and a lot of foundation, looking like the old piece of cheese at the back of your fridge. By this point in the film I was just begging for the credits to start rolling, and Depp does little beyond croak out a few lines, although it’s too early to judge how inspired (or not) his casting in the franchise will turn out to be.
Like I said, there are some really interesting ideas and characters in here, particularly Queenie, Kowalski and Ezra Miller’s Credence, but these are buried under the weight of tedium and mediocrity that is the rest of the film. It feels like Rowling’s saving all these bigger and better – and much more interesting – elements for the subsequent planned films in the series, which comes across as lazy and self-indulgent. Why waste so much of this first film doing close to nothing new or exciting?
One element that would have let me forgive a lot of the film’s misfires was the creature design, but even that is dull, uninspired, and overly reliant on a gratuitous use of CGI. They’re all just slight variations on an existing animal, mostly cute or noble or mildly odd, and the one malevolent creature – a parasitic magical anomaly called an Obscurus – is a seething dark mass of who cares. Admittedly, this does look a bit cooler when it comes into play during the film’s climax, but again there’s nothing original or eye-popping in here. I could feel Guillermo del Toro sadly shaking his head at this missed opportunity while I watched the tedium unfold on the screen. For all the money they must have spent on the special effects, there’s very little here that actually feels magical.
Speaking of which, Fantastic Beasts spends far too much time treating the more mundane elements of wizarding life – magically-assisted cooking and the effects of simple spells – like they’re marvels we’re seeing for the first time, forgetting that most of its audience have already sat through – and thoroughly enjoyed, for the most part – all eight of the Harry Potter films. In other words, we know how this world works. Rowling’s universe is not new; its rules have been established and we don’t need every shot or musical cue to focus in on what should, by now, be taken for granted. This was a real opportunity to focus on new elements in a revisited universe, especially given the change in time period and setting. Alas, it’s an opportunity the filmmakers didn’t take, instead playing it safe and sacrificing the movie’s heart.
Like Yates’ previous film, which managed to make a yawn-fest out of Tarzan (fucking Tarzan!), Fantastic Beasts continues the director’s recently acquired talent for turning potentially good, fun ideas into utterly boring movies, although I don’t think the screenwriters of both films should dodge their share of the blame. Ultimately, everything good about Fantastic Beasts feels like a series of unfulfilled promises in what’s mostly a big wet flannel of a film, with a two-hour running time that feels like five. Everyone on board had better get their shit together for the next four planned films, or we’ll have yet another dud blockbuster franchise on our hands.