I should have gone with my gut. When news broke that J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a fictional textbook set in the Harry Potter universe, would be adapted into a film, my gut told me it would be a shallow cash grab. And that’s what we got. The magic is gone, the spells ineffective. There’s nothing fantastic about this beast.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a fish out of water. He makes his way to America during the 1920s, landing in New York, where a chance encounter with non-mag Kowalski (Dan Fogler) has him accidentally swap his briefcase filled with magical creatures with a briefcase of pastries. Soon the beasts get loose, and Newt runs about trying to catch them all with the help of ex-Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) as Graves (Colin Farrell) hunts for a large magical force terrorizing the city.
The writing is the biggest flaw here. For some godforsaken reason, the powers that be decided to tap J.K. Rowling as a screenwriter. She’s clearly out of her depth as she writes ineffectual characters and an atrocious plot and there are a handful of elements that might work in a novel, but absolutely fall apart in the runtime of a film.
As a lead, Newt is a bore. His two character traits are that he is shy and nebbish. When he talks to people, he rarely looks them in the eyes. He mumbles words out into sounds that resemble a sentence, which is probably more of Eddie Redmayne’s general mode of acting. He has no real evolution or growth. He’s the same shy, nebbish guy by the end of the film.
And the rest of the cast of characters are equally bland. Tina is primarily incompetent, her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a flirt, Kowalski is the damsel in distress. Even supporting characters in the Harry Potter stories were more than just character traits. They had motivations, intriguing histories and evolution. Here, no one is forced to grow, they just happen to go through a lot of hijinx before the film ends.
However, there is one glimmering feat of characterization in this film: the beasts. When the film showcases the wondrous beasts, it breathes a tiny amount of life into this lifeless carcass. The animation team clearly had a blast giving these creatures personalities and mannerisms. They emote and act better than any of their real-life actors. It’s a shame the story couldn’t focus on the creatures instead of a generic fantasy story.
I’m not one to pick apart films for having plot holes, but this one is riddled with so many I found myself days afterwards still picking at it. Why would Newt take a boat to New York when wizards have the ability to teleport (and do just that countless times in this film)? If you had magical creatures in your bag, wouldn’t you lock it tight? Also, if you’re in the bag (it’s bigger on the inside), wouldn’t you have some sort of escape hatch to prevent someone from closing and latching the bag on you?
Why for goodness sake would the characters in the film tote around a non-mag for the entirety of the movie when his only role in the group is to get saved by the magic users? And why don’t the New York magicians have any sort of effective security to prevent ridiculously obvious breaches of security?
The larger plot unfolds where a woman leads a witch hunt initiative, using the children in her orphanage as workers to spread the world. It’s a trite allegory to fundamental Christianity that literally blows up when you find out they’re the ones responsible for the mysterious evil magic that does a lot of the destroying for most of the film. If this magical evil is so devastating and dangerous, why the hell isn’t it mentioned in the Harry Potter stories? It makes Dementors look like a walk in the park.
To make things worse, the music kicks in during dramatic moments and it’s one of the most tone-deaf, out of touch soundtracks I’ve ever heard from a film. Obviously, not having John Williams is going to take the music a step down, but whoever decided when and where to put the music in this film should have their ears checked. Bright, swelling music will play over a dark, dramatic twist and absolutely kill the mood. It’s as if James Newton Howard came up with a few hours of music without seeing anything of the film and they slapped it together in the audio mixing and called it a day once every scene had some sort of music.
I was at least hoping for some good setpieces. Director David Yates made some magnificent, magical moments in films like Order of the Phoenix and Deathly Hallows Part 1 & Part 2. But here, the setpieces are massive CGI messes that lack the weightiness and creativity of the Harry Potter films. There’s nothing impressive about seeing people hop around what was clearly a green screen. Also, the direction is overall poor. There’s no drama to the action, just empty spectacle, which might be more of a writing problem than a directing problem.
But the worst offense is the way the film uses magic to get out of every single problem. I always had this problem with Harry Potter, but it tended to show that even then there were grave consequences. Characters you cared about died, certain uses of magic tormented the people who used them, some wounds magic couldn’t heal. Here, everything is tidied up with a big show of magic, meaning everything watched up to that point is completely inconsequential and frivolous. No stakes, no peril, no tension.
In my dream world, this film would have been an opportunity to play with form and get some fresh talent involved. I’m imagining a documentary style film about Newt finding all these amazing, dangerous magical creatures, Steve Irwin style. “Now over here we have a Pollywapper, one of the most venomous magical creatures in the world. Let’s take a closer look. Now…I’m just going to grab it by the tail.” Get Trollhunter’s André Øvredal or What We Do in the Shadows’s Taika Waititi to direct.
Instead, we get a film that mirrors the structure of the Harry Potter films without any of the magic. Boring, one-dimensional characters, enough plot holes to give YouTubers and bloggers hours of material, and the liberal use of magic to solve everything make for a boring, uninspired film. In an age where franchises rule the box office, insipid, uninspired junk like this will continue to be popular as long as rabid fans continue to see every last entry. I’m calling it quits. The Harry Potter ship has sailed. Go reread the books, go rewatch the films, but for goodness sake don’t see this garbage.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing