One question I always had while watching the Harry Potter movies was how all the wizards and witches J.K. Rowling created were able to operate within their universe without being discovered by the humans (or muggles) around them. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them answers that question with a movie that’s visually stimulating, narratively muddled and a bit too in love with itself.
We start off with a series of newspaper clippings warning us of a terrorizing dark wizard named Grindelwald, but then there’s an awkward transition to an awkward man named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s traveling to New York City with a mysterious briefcase. He comes to a bank looking for a stray beast, where he meets a “No-Maj” banker needing a loan (Dan Fogler). What is a “No-Maj”? They’re the American version of muggles, we’re told and should they see any magic their minds can be wiped (consider it a 1920s version of Men In Black’s Neuralyzer). Meanwhile, a fellow magician named Tina (Katherine Waterson) is eating a hot dog when she decides to pursue Newt. Finally, we see a high level wizard (Colin Farrell) investigating a building mysteriously damaged in a manner that screams magic.
Are any of these scenes linked in any way? In the most basic sense that they both involve characters from the exact same movie, yes. But placed in the context of a universe that we have vague familiarity with (Harry Potter never explored the human world in a way that didn’t make you want to leave for Hogwarts already), it’s too much information at once.
The suitcase Newt carries around? It’s like a novel in it’s own with all the information it has. It doubles as an exotic global zoo, and it’s here where Fantastic Beasts surges, as a film about one guy caring deeply for all his animals.
Amidst all this we have some scenes regarding an abusive mother and her poor stepchild (Ezra Miller) who seems to have some arrangement with Farrell’s character. Miller gives a performance that I would generously call miscalculated. He wants to portray a damaged child ready to explode, but he comes off like an alien with bad hair, distracting the movie with his presence.
Redmayne portrays a much more likable oddball, and despite some early awkward moments (like getting right up next to a woman and peering over her), his performance settles in and doesn’t become annoying.
One thing that remained constant throughout all the uneven scenes was how beautiful everything looks. Director David Yates uses a similar gray-based color pallet to his atrocious Legend of Tarzan movie last summer, but here it fits the retro 1920s vibe.
But at no point does Yates (with a screenplay from Rowling herself) ever think to let the movie breathe. There’s no stopping points as more information and exposition gets thrown at you like you’re in a class at Hogwarts yourself. Rowling herself forgets that despite the Harry Potter connections, that this is not the same movie. That famous franchise set up its premise of a young boy on a journey to turn into a man that will take on evil, and it never lost sight of it. Any extra character or plot was just adding to that.
Rowling stuffed so much in here (this is reportedly film one of five) that it becomes mind numbing. No matter how impressive a CGI rhino with a pregnant-looking head appears, by that point you’re been jerked around so many scenes that you don’t care.
Speaking of not caring, what was the point of Jon Voight in this movie? He portrays a newspaper magnate with a son that’s a U.S. Senator, but he does nothing other than mourn and demand revenge. He’s only in about two to three scenes, and adds nothing to this.
But what’s there to add to? We’re left with a plot that meanders around New York, basically looking for beasts with Newt acting as a quirky National Geographic guide, explaining their importance to us all over pretty visuals. I really wouldn’t watch that for free, so I certainly wouldn’t pay for it either.
Published by Jagger Czajka