JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts book was always a for-the-fans endeavour, an exhaustive catalog of the many spectacular creatures dreamed up in her Potter-populated wizarding world, so it’s fitting that the movie adaptation, even though now a narrative feature, follows suit. But is it too much for us mere muggles to ask for a more engaging, interesting, and just generally awake lead for this new series than Eddie Redmayne? He’s all tics and whispers here, playing an introverted British wizard whose shy, bumbling qualities come off as signals of sheer idiocy in the actor’s hands.
Acting by the series leads has never been a strong suit of this big screen franchise, considering Daniel Radcliffe never made a very compelling Harry Potter, but it’s more forgivable when the lead is a kid than when it’s an Oscar-winning adult. Redmayne sucks the life out of his movie, so it’s again up to the supporting cast to salvage things on the acting front. Fantastic Beasts lacks the who’s-who gallery of elite Brit performers that the Potter pics had, but it still has Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell, who liven up the proceedings well enough.
Oddly, it’s American comedy star Dan Fogler who delivers the strongest work in front of the camera, playing a beleaguered baker in 20s New York forced into an adventure when he crosses paths with Redmayne’s Newt Scamander. Newt is on some sort of vacation and arrives just as tensions between the humans and the hidden wizarding world are rising, which sets the stage for Newt to lose several magical creatures in bustling Manhattan.
There’s not much story beyond that, although Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, certainly does her best to fill the air with enough noise to convince us there’s plenty of reason for this movie to exist. Newt chases after his creatures while Fogler’s Jacob tags along and becomes smitten with beautiful telepath Queenie (Fine Frenzy), whose sister Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced auror (or wizarding cop for us muggles) bothered by Newt’s poorly timed visit.
Rowling creates several threads of conflict to busy the story as much as possible and build towards sequels, so while the primary plot really is about Newt retrieving the titular creatures, there are more pressing concerns regarding the anti-magic sentiment in New York, a series of attacks made by a powerfully destructive black cloud, and the much-ballyhooed disappearance (and assumed reappearance) of evil wizard Grindewalt.
These things won’t mean much to casual fans, but since they’re all about expanding the onscreen wizarding world and hinting at more adventures to come, one can imagine fans finding pleasure in all the activity. Still, it’s equally difficult to picture anyone defending this movie as anything more than Rowling’s weakest work.
The author-turned-screenwriter could always count plot and the interwoven twists as her greatest strength, but here she’s operating in rather obvious territory and with a story that feels sluggish and inconsequential when compared to what Harry, Hermione, and Ron will go through some 80 years later. Watching boring Newt wander around town in search of his animals really doesn’t compare to all the hijinks of Hogwarts.
At least the Beasts themselves are interesting enough. If one thing can be said about David Yates’ tenure as resident helmer of this flagship franchise, it’s that his movies certainly look good. He doesn’t take any risks and he’s certainly not breaking any new ground after previously directing four of the eight Harry Potter flicks, but he’s pushed his crew to craft a dazzling recreation of 20s New York City and filled it with some enjoyably oddball animals.
When Newt takes us inside his enchanted suitcase to view a menagerie of the Fantastic Beasts he works hard to protect from the less compassionate and understanding members of the wizarding community, there’s a sense of whimsy and wonder that borders on being touching. Any animal lover can share Newt’s passion for these creatures and the movie’s simple call to protect endangered species is a nice way of drawing relevancy to our modern magic-free world.
Moments like that one illustrate how Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is best when it’s just living up to its long-winded title. When it’s working hard to be otherwise long-winded in establishing a game plan for multiple planned sequels, it’s far less enjoyable. Rowling’s world still looks sharp when powered by the pixels of modern movie magic, but between its harebrained hero and scatterbrained story, this latest pic sputters.
While it’s fine to be one for the diehards, a better lead and better plot would make this whole effort more worthwhile. The shortcomings are significant and the positives mostly a grab-bag of Yates' past successes. But with only mild references to the previous Potter pictures, this at least feels like a true widening of the world. Of course, the issue remains that a story needs to be told and this one's a muggled mess.