Movie review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Eddie Redmayne unpacks some familiar plays for sympathy as a magical brand of Dr. Doolittle in an undeniably disappointing Harry Potter prequel
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight
Directed by: David Yates
Running time: 2 hrs 13 mins
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Harry Potter was undeniably magical. The story of the little wizard wove glistening threads of imaginative possibility into our mundane reality, and for this, J.K. Rowling deserves every honour known to humankind.
For penning the script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, however, Rowling deserves a Technicolor raspberry.
A sorrowful disappointment in just about every way, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them is billed as a period prequel to the world of Potter.
It’s 1926 and an English magizoologist by the name of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with hopes of releasing some of his rehabilitated magical creatures back into the wild.
Newt’s not a people person. He’d rather hang out with his Niffler (a duck-billed marsupial with a crow’s affection for shiny things) and Bowtruckle (a cross between a praying mantis and lock pick) than human beings — even the magical kind — because the animals aren’t cruel, vindictive or even resentful.
They merely want to survive. Yet, in a world where magic is seen as a potential weapon, these fantastic beasts are considered a risk that must be eliminated, with the suitcase-toting Newt Scamander becoming a de facto terrorist.
Unfortunately for Newt, and the movie, his magical suitcase is switched for a satchel full of baked goods in the first act. A non-magical human named Jacob Kowalski winds up with the wild critters while Scamander holds a cream puff.
At first blush, Rowling appears to have created the perfect allegory for our times as she shows us a metropolis veering into an abyss of fear and xenophobia in the wake of an unexplained attack. Brownstones are being reduced to rubble. An entire sect of ‘Second Salemers’ urges for inquisitions to purge the city of witches, and before long, the cold hand of hate has the big apple by the throat.
It feels familiar, and just a little forced, but the dramatic design is sound: Friends of tolerance and compassion must quell the chants of fear and hate.
Championing the “good” are Scamander, an American Auror named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the “Muggle” or “No-Maj” named Kowalski (Dan Fogler).
In the dark corner, wearing black trunks and a consistently evil grin are the director of magical security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the head of the Second Salemers, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and a disembodied black dust bunny called an Obscurus.
We’re also treated to two super-creepy kids: Credence Barebone, played by the professionally eerie Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), and a young girl with a wide-eyed expression and the pale face of a possessed pre-teen.
There’s plenty of human drama in the mix already, but the whole point of this story is to introduce us to the animals, and set up the textbook that would wind up in the hands of Harry Potter: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, penned by Newt Scamander.
Clearly, part of the attraction was to see the fantastical creatures in three dimensions. Director David Yates delivers a basic field guide, with Redmayne playing the Marlin Perkins of the wild kingdom, but the creatures and the story don’t really coalesce.
Every illustrated chapter of fantastical bestial behaviour interrupts the other half of the movie, resulting in a milk run of a narrative — stopping every few minutes to take on new creatures and offer cute bits of visual.
The creatures never feel entirely real, or even magical. They all look like digital creations inserted into the action — to greater and lesser effect. They don’t even share the same style of animation. Each creature looks as though it was created by an entirely different team, resulting in a messy patchwork of artifice that bleeds both sympathy and suspense.
Sure, we still like the animals. Misunderstood, maligned and hunted, they’re the easiest sources of sympathy — even if they feel fake. It’s the humans who really mess things up, particularly Redmayne.
The Oscar-winning actor who turned Stephen Hawking into a stuffed animal of sentiment in The Theory of Everything feels even stickier in this reel, exploiting a faux overbite and perfecting the beaten puppy look he offered up as Hawking.
Waterston does much better as the proto-feminist American Ms. Goldstein, finding a nice balance between girl power and 20th-century politesse.
The movie could have done a lot more with the differences between American and British magical tradition and succeeded as a well-timed political metaphor about fear of the unfamiliar, weapons of mass destruction and dark wizards with a lust for power.
Sadly, it doesn’t succeed as such. At its best, it’s a charming reconstruction of 1920s New York City with some cute moments from a pint-sized pickpocket. At its worst, it’s a dreary chase movie without suspense or drama, just a whole lot of high-priced pixelated filler that serves as cheap distraction.
THE EX-PRESS, November 18, 2016