Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)
Published in 2001, after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – the fourth volume in the parent series of the Harry Potter universe – had already come out, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a slim, mock textbook on magical creatures ostensibly written by a specialist in that subject named Newt Scamander. It is a guide to a little-known part of author J.K. Rowling’s richly textured world of witches and wizards, and as such is a delightful compendium of esoterica that offers scrumptious tidbits for casual fans and Potter aficionados, alike. What it is not is a story, or even a template for a story, so the fact that Rowling has borrowed Scamander’s title for her first-ever screenplay provides little clue for what might await the viewer, other than the titular creatures. And they are there, prominently featured in this new film brought to us by the studio (Warner Bros.) that made all previous Potter films and the director (David Yates) who directed the final four (starting with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).
Rowling and Yates start out by giving us what we want, which is good magical fun and adventure, but if I mention the movie’s pedigree, it is to emphasize how much the enterprise feels brand-oriented, cramming in so many details of new-series set-up as to overwhelm both beasts and story. In fact, the beasts, themselves, are almost superfluous. Instead, we get yet a new battle between forces of dark magic and forces of good, embodied by one evil wizard named Grindelwald and one super-nice-guy bloke named … Newt Scamander. I won’t divulge any major plot spoilers by revealing the identity of the villain, who remains hidden in plain sight for most of the movie, but unless you are one extremely inattentive audience member, you’ll know who he is from the moment he appears on screen. Still, there are surprises in store, so even as we realize that we’re merely watching the launch of a new franchise, we marvel at how well the effort entertains.
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays Scamander as a charmingly distracted academic, whom we first meet upon his arrival in New York of the mid-1920s. He’s in possession of a special suitcase from which emerge knockings and groans (and a claw), but which he makes Muggle-proof with the flick of a switch. It turns out he has misplaced one of the creatures he collects, and soon makes his way to a bank where the lost soul – an unbearably cute cross between a platypus and a magpie – is busy stealing gold. His use of magic on a Muggle (called a “No-Maj” – pronounced “no-madge” – in America) draws the attention of a local inspector, Tina Goldstein (a very fine Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice), and what should have been a simple extraction mission quickly blows up into a major flash point between ordinary humans and wizards. Add a dash of malicious intent (courtesy of he who shall be named, i.e., Grindelwald), and it’s a wonder that there’s anything left standing in New York by the end. It’s engaging enough, as these things go, but burdened with too many subplots. Yes, there will be sequels, but perhaps the one story would have been enough here. After all, we came for the beasts.
Many of these creatures are wonderfully designed – as is the Big Apple of yore – though I was disappointed that the one scene where we see them all in one place suffers from a certain visual artificiality, as if the green screen had not been properly keyed out. In an otherwise technically superb production, this was a glaring failing. And though one of them does end up playing an important role in the climax, they still feel shoehorned into the clash between the main protagonists. Fortunately, those characters are portrayed by actors who know what they’re doing: in addition to Redmayne and Waterston, we also have Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Colin Farrell (The Lobster), Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Dan Fogler (Don Peyote) and musician-turned-actress Alison Sudol, among others. It’s an appealing cast, game for anything (Fogler, as a hapless No-Maj swept up in the mayhem, especially) and when Rowling remembers to keep the script moving jauntily forward, they shine.
One major problem with the movie, however, that refused to leave me in peace, was its central conceit of the self-imposed restraint that wizards and witches must show in order to hide from us regular folk. In the Harry Potter books and stories, with their emphasis more squarely on the lives and customs of the magical world, the clash of civilizations was not so foregrounded. Here, given that those with wands can more or less do whatever they want, with no discernible reciprocal weapon on the part of ordinary humans, why – as Grindelwald asks – would they feel the need to hide? Yes, we hear tell of ancient witch burnings, but given what we see of the overwhelming superiority of those witches in this story, how could that actually be a viable threat? Rowling fails to make a compelling case for the division of worlds. Perhaps she will in the next film, or the one after that. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, however, there are a few too many loose threads for it to be more than a diverting set-up for revelations to come.