One can imagine the collective sigh at Warner Brothers when the beloved cash-cow ‘Harry Potter’ franchise completed its’ run with ‘Deathly Hollows – Part 2’ back in 2011. Almost every year for a decade, the movie studio had a reliable quality film to release, culminating in a finale that displayed a maturity that matched an audience that grew along with it. One can also imagine the absolute ecstasy the suits must have felt when HP mastermind J.K. Rowling came to them with a new idea for a spin-off, the tales of Newt Scamander, magic-zoologist, and author of the titular text book the students use at Hogwarts; an idea she was passionate enough about to tackle the screenplay herself. The end result of this first venture (of a planned five film series) is a bit of a mixed bag though – wondrous representations of the magical creatures Scamander is so passionate over, mixed with some one-dimensional characterizations, and a less than compelling over-arching plot.
‘Fantastic Beasts . . . ‘ moves the setting from the unseen magical world of modern England to a 1926 New York City whose hidden witch/wizard society is on the verge of becoming very visible. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, twitchy and barely audible in some exchanges, arrives at Ellis Island as an unknown factor, his beat-up briefcase hiding all manner of beasts within. He is barely in the city moments before he is noticed by the American branch of magic society in the form of Katherine Waterston’s recently demoted agent, Tina (a cypher of a character whose motivations are barely explored – maybe left to the sequels?). The initial scene is effective in that it sets up the running storyline of the accidental release of Newt’s creatures (in this case a platypus-looking kleptomaniac about the size of a large rodent who steals the scenes from its’ less animated costars) and his attempts to get them back with some unwanted help. In this case, it’s Dan Fogler’s human, or ‘no-mag’, wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski who inadvertently gets caught up in the shenanigans. Luckily for the film, Fogler contributes a much needed emotional foil to the often drab characters on screen, including a main character whose anti-social nuances are meant to be endearing but come off as more isolating to both an audience and his new allies.
Meanwhile the film introduces a whole host of characters that make up the antagonistic side of the plot. These include a repressive (and shockingly abusive) foster mother played by Samantha Morton and her oldest son Credence, played anxiously by Ezra Miller. There is a connection between them and the zealous head wizard of America’s guild, Graves, in a thus far one-dimensional turn by Colin Farrell – or is their leader the non-understanding and unforgiving president Picquery played by Carmen Ejogo – it’s difficult to sort all of this out at first in an overcomplicated screenplay that really doesn’t need to be so complex. It seems that Rowling had trouble making the jump from book to screenplay and probably could have used an assist from a screenwriter just as she did for the recent ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.’
A constant from the last four Potter films, director David Yates does a professional and more than serviceable job reining in all the disparate parts of this story. He is able to set a consistent, if at times bleak, tone, to subject matter that may have benefited from some whimsy. While this darker outlook was perfect for a Harry Potter story that was becoming increasingly maudlin and grander in scale, a story about wondrous creatures and the shy man dedicated to their protection may have been better serviced by a look and feel radiating a bit more hope and a little less dread . . .
Directed By: David Yates
Written By: J.K. Rowling
Running Time: 133 min.
* * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B-