I was worried about the script to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them the moment I heard a muggle was now a “No-Maj.” Muggle has put down its roots deep into the pop cultural lexicon and it said a great deal about Rowling that she didn’t fully understand parts of why her story succeeded so thoroughly.
The other part would be the displacement of the story to New York. Harry Potter has always been a profoundly British story, and the cast seems to be playing British even as they’re playing 1920s Americans. Already, Rowling has suffered from looking for Britain’s wealth of history in America’s profoundly bloody and problematic past.
Even still, it is good to see old friends, even if they’re completely new friends. The brand loyalty of Harry Potter has wormed its way into my brain. But right away, the fundamental issues of the movie’s construction expose themselves.
Eddie Redmayne is a talented performer, but we’re stone-walled by his starry-eyed fey-ness as Newt Scamander. He maintains the same shtick throughout the story, side-glancing and mumbling into inaudible infinity, practically a fantastic beast himself. While he managed it to better effect in an Academy Award winning turn in The Theory of Everything, he committed the same sin in The Danish Girl, a sin long-time Harry Potter-helmer David Yates should’ve put an immediate stop to. There are flashes of humanity buried in him, especially when he interacts with his eponymous animals, but the character is never allowed to open up and breathe. At the very least it demands a contrast, but Katherine Waterson’s Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein is another unshowy performance that sends things from quiet to catatonic.
Things are livened up considerably by Jacob Kowalski, a delightful Dan Fogler overcoming the half-written ghosts of jokes, and his romance with Alison Sudol’s Queenie. The latter steers away from one-note ethereal ditziness with a sweet-natured verve.
This quartet is sent along a wild goose chase, hunting down a series of animals that many are describing as Pokemon Go on steroids. Simultaneously going on is another subplot (plot?) involving Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, a mercurially scary Auror who’s running a long game on Ezra Miller’s Credence and his foster family of one-note creepy Salem witch-burners. Farrell is a standout, perfect for playing brilliant douchebags like his early role in Minority Report. Here he has a sweet coat and scarf and is oozing sinister vibes in what I can only describe as a psychosexual paternal villain role.
The cast is underserved further by a paper-thin plot that drags on various set pieces for far too long. Half the scenes that should’ve been excised for sheer lack of narrative use. The most egregious are a meet-cute bank scene and a climax that over-relies on a CGI stormcloud. To be sure, the effects are almost uniformly terrific. There are shots of wizards knitting together destroyed buildings and reversing entropy, of sewing together strudels, and the magical gunfights of their wands somehow remain thrilling instead of boring. However, watching the reject brother of Lost’s smoke monster zip around for what feels like an eternity is taxing on the soul. All I wanted to see was a human face. Every moment of watching Farrell’s face was imminently more compelling.
Another word on the effects of Fantastic Beasts goes to the magical denizens of Rowling’s world, particularly the sentient ones. I spent a great deal of the movie wondering if the various goblins and house-elves looked fake simply because of the poor effects or because my mind wouldn’t accept them as instinctually realistic. I think it’s the latter. The giants and centaurs in the original eight movies were always terrible, even a few of those in the massively big-budgeted The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The conceptually simple but practically difficult answer is to go the route of the elaborate costumes used in Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy series or his Pan’s Labyrinth. Those movies had a grimy, yet gorgeously tactile quality to them.
The real crime is that quite frankly those occasional lapses in visual aesthetics undermine one of the great feats of the movie and the entire franchise. Rowling and the cinematic renderings of her world have always been great at evoking a vast sense of wonder. One of the best scenes in the movie is a pause in the nonsensical chase where we visit Newt’s wild menagerie housed in the magical pocket world stored in his valise. Inside dwells a half dozen climes beneath an organically unreal patchwork sky. It’s quiet and unearthly and briefly brushes aside every doubt about plot or acting or brand exhaustion. You feel charmed and transported and grateful to endure the mediocre along with the brilliant.