by Michael Henley
For students of the Harry Potter franchise, there’s a moment in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them where we relax and consider ourselves in good hands. That moment comes right at the top, as the Warner Bros. logo dips into a sea of dimly-lit magical swirls and John Williams’ familiar Potter theme suggests itself every so slightly. It’s a moment that offers such promise and confidence. There’s enchanted things afoot, much like there was in the original Harry Potter series (2001-2011). Fans will be right at home, and good for them. J.K. Rowling made a deserved mint on crafting her elaborate world in her books and producing the accompanying movie series, and it’s become all the more clear as young adult movie franchises wither and die at her feet that she knew exactly what she was doing. By contrast, imagine seeing another Eragon film. Or wanting to.
But if there’s one thing I know about franchises, it’s this: give them enough time, and eventually they pick a frustrating moment to coast. To increase the navel-gazing. To stop being about other things and start being exclusively about themselves. For the Harry Potter series, Fantastic Beasts is that moment. It’s a distant prequel to Harry’s adventures, set in 1920’s New York, and it feels less like a movie and more like an event exclusively tailored for Potter enthusiasts who care more about fan service and world-building. Those elements are on full display in Fantastic Beasts, and dyed-in-the-wool Potter fanatics will drink in the imaginative period details and the refreshing reverse-transatlantic perspective on the series’ heretofore exclusively British mythology. But Fantastic’s plot is thin, its characters are stultifyingly boring, its tone is dreary and its pacing curiously labored (there is no reason for this film to be as long as it is). Rather than telling us a bold new story in the Harry Potter universe, this movie (one of five planned) feels more like a weary trip to a Harry Potter theme park.
Don’t misunderstand. As far as fantasy prequels go, Fantastic Beats is hardly a Phantom Menace. But it is definitely, curiously, less than compelling. J.K. Rowling wrote the screenplay this time (previous Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves is a producer here), and maybe she displays here discomfort with the form—prose is her jam, you might wisely determine. Or maybe the lack of energy is due to director David Yates (who helmed the last four out of eight Potter films, and with this ninth one now graduates to majority whip). Or maybe the issue here is Warner Bros., who are clearly looking to wring every last drop of Potter mythology into multiple movies, possibly to each one’s detriment. Or maybe it’s the unshakable weirdness of a Potter movie now fully centering on adults rather than children or teens.
Or maybe it’s…the adults they picked. Consider how good the casting of Potter was from the start, and what charming heroes Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint were. For the opening of what’s supposed to be a new series, we’re not so lucky this time. In Beasts, Eddie Redmayne, he of the perpetual insufferable smirk, plays Newt Scamander, a scatterbrained professor who lugs a cargo of mystical monsters into New York City, who then escape from his rickety suitcase and run amok in Manhattan. Redmayne plays him as a shy cipher, with a mixture of apologetic-but-forceful arrogance. The performance is mannered and irritating, and his likability takes a further hit when we unpack the plot and consider that many of the movie’s events happen specifically because its hero is a twerpy spaz (tellingly, there’s a moment where the entire New York magic office turns against him, and their complaints seem perfectly reasonable–it’s difficult to want to take his side). In this somewhat dour film, we want a lead that provides a bit of fun and accessibility, and Redmayne is no help.
It’s not just Redmayne, though. Katherine Waterston shows up as Tina Goldstein, a peon in the New York magic office, and Colin Farrell is an evil magician wreaking havoc. Jon Voight plays a New York politican, and Samantha Morton, always welcome, plays the leader of an anti-magic extremist group. These are all good actors given not much to do. Waterston is whispy and one-note as Tina, our female lead—from the universe that gave us Hermione Granger, this will not do. Farrell is basically asked to furrow his eyebrows menacingly, and Voight shows up to collect a check. Morton’s witch-hating protester is so unapologetically bloody-minded that she hardly comes across a credible villain, and the details of how Muggles (or “no-Majs” as they’re referred to in the states) can realistically win a war against magic users is never seriously explained. This becomes a bigger plot point as the movie progresses, and the stakes are never really made clear. As for Ezra Miller, who plays Morton’s pensive and sullen son, he seems to have little purpose in the narrative, which means…well…what do you think it means?
There’s two characters who truly pop amid all the dreariness and murky relationships. One would be Alison Sudol as Queenie, Tina’s extroverted roommate/sister, a magician who can read minds and has the charm of a daffy flapper. She meets a guy, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a sad sack Muggle who gets drawn into the mayhem when he accidentally swaps suitcases with Scamander, and soon learns the threat of obliviation (being made to forget everything he’s seen) is hanging in the air. Fogler plays the part with winsome, downtrodden charm, and Sudol is effervescently amusing, as is their awkward romance (falling in love with a mind reader makes things…complicated…) They’re fun together, and that only points to the fact that you wish the movie was more about them.
Oh, the movie keeps throwing things at you: chase sequences with monsters and cute pets, a fanciful recreation of 1920’s New York, huge special effects setpieces. But most of them feel rehashed and unconvincing; gone are the cutting-edge technical credentials that flavored the Potter films: most of the big scenes take place at night in darkened rooms or deserted parks, where people gape at run-of-the-mill visuals and get involved in slapsticky, trying-too-hard antics. Some of the world-building stuff is more fun–there’s an elaborate trip to New York’s own ministry of magic building, and later a speakeasy operated by a snarling house elf played by–who else?–Ron Perlman. But there’s not much joy in these scenes, perhaps because they feel like freestanding sequences designed simply to impress us, not places that are necessary to visit in order to propel a tight story. The one big sequence that truly does work is a trip inside Scamander’s suitcase, which has entire habitats for enchanted monsters partitioned by weird time-space curtains. It’s where we get color, intriguing developments, energy and some things that resemble backstory and motivations. Not enough, but some. Why couldn’t the whole movie take place there?
Otherwise, I didn’t feel much at all during the numerous effects moments, including the boilerplate climactic blowout (which is underwhelming on multiple levels). Instead, I was touched by a smaller moment between two characters towards the end, and that’s appropriate, because the Potter movies have never been about their action and effects—they’re about the human element, which is sadly underrepresented here. It’s becomes too tall an order to truly care about Scamander and his friends–they’re asked to carry the story but are too one-dimensional to do any heavy lifting, like they were written to be servants of the mythology rather than participants in it. Why is that prequels sometimes have such a hard time stepping out of the shadow of their source material? With her books, Rowling created one of the richest and most creative fantasy universes of the millennium—and now it feels like she’s forgotten just a little what made it work.
Of course, there will most certainly be sequels to this prequel. Se-prequels? We knew that going in, and we’re reminded of it again when at the very end a famous special guest star shows up. I won’t tell you who it is (though you might know), and I won’t tell you how intrusive his presence is (though you might correctly guess). What I will say is that this moment feels like a stunt, and that sets an unfortunate tone for what’s supposed to be a thrilling curtain raiser for a new saga. My prescription for next time? Improved characters, a faster pace, and more thrills. Fantastic Beasts has potential—in its timeframe and setting at least—to be a wonderful extension of the Potter dynasty. But for this first time out, and forgive me if this sounds intolerant, it feels like the Muggles ended up calling all the shots. Too bad.