Based on a text book taught to the young wizards at Hogwarts, “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” is a new chapter in what might be called Potter-verse — a world that puts Eddie Redmayne’s bumbling, gentlemen magizoologist Newt Scamander at the heart of the story.
Although it’s a prequel set in 1926, “Fantastic Beasts” is certainly a J.K. Rowling vision, instantly recognizable as part of what they officially call her “wizarding world.” The film’s feel owes just as much to the re-assembled production team behind the “Harry Potter” franchise, including producer David Heyman, director David Yates and the outstanding production designer Stuart Craig.
Therein lies both the enterprise’s triumph and its pitfalls. It looks like a billion dollars, most of which it will surely bring in over the promised run of four more Scamander films. The 1920s New York set, built at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden, north of London, has all the grandeur and detail of “The Godfather II,” “Once Upon A Time in America” or “Gangs of New York.”
Newt arrives into this world by ocean liner — trunk case in hand, standing in line at Ellis Island as if he has just left Oxford and can’t quite believe there are no porters about. The classic brown luggage is, of course, key to the whole film. It’s like Dr. Who’s tardis, a portal to an entire realm. As a screen gimmick, it works wonderfully — a literal bag of tricks that can usher in any plot line or adventure whenever needed. It is where Newt keeps his eponymous beasts, some of whom like to escape and scramble their way out every now and then, particularly the rather cute Niffler, a sort of mole-meets-platypus thing that likes shiny objects which he stuffs into a bottomless fur pouch.
Kowalski is the archetypal No-Maj — American term for “muggle,” literally one who has no magic — and it is through his ever-widening (and believing) eyes that we witness the mayhem and high jinx. While Newt dashes around New York trying to round up his escaped beasts (get used to them as they’ll be in-demand merchandise soon: the rhino-hippo Erumpent, the twig-like Bowtruckle, the Occamy, Graphorns, bitey Murtlaps, Billywigs, and something called Swooping Evil), Redmayne’s major success is in acting adeptly with these imaginary special effect creations.
But their presence on the loose in the city naturally risks exposing the wizard world to that of the No-Majs, and that’s why Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) get involved. They escort Newt to the world of MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America), where tensions are already simmering, threatened by the presence of a “dark wind” blowing in from Europe.
While this does add a layer of allegory — a suspicion of “aliens” that resonates in this most tumultuous of political weeks — it also means there’s a heck of a lot going on here. Like Newt’s leather case, it’s rather overstuffed. While Redmayne’s wizard corrals his creatures, we barely have time to get to know Waterston’s Tina, who remains frustratingly blank.
I haven’t even mentioned Jon Voight’s press baron Henry Shaw, and his two sons, one a devoted newspaper man (Ronan Rafferty), the other a corrupt politician (Josh Cowdrey), nor Carmen Ejiogo and Colin Farrell who run MACUSA.
Whilst many of the individual episodes are exciting and visually inventive in themselves, there’s an overall lack of cohesion, which might be understandable given this is Rowling’s first screenplay, a skill requiring far more economy than her large novels ever exercised.
What really disappoints is that where Harry Potter and his films felt entirely original, there’s a “franchise-y” feel to “Fantastic Beasts.” It has the now-predictable rhythms of a Marvel origins movie — New York again gets destroyed in a climactic barrage of special effects; the Blind Pig speakeasy even seems modeled on the “Star Wars” cantina — and less of the eccentric, innocent, English charms of Harry and his little chums and their battles.
“I tend to annoy people,” says Newt with good, old British honesty. It gets a laugh, sure, but it’s not really a trait one wants to put up with for four more films. For all the ruffled, public-school appeal of Redmayne and the physicality of the performance, he remains a solitary figure, forever in search of a smile.
Something more is needed, a bit more wit, perhaps, or dare I say it, some sexual tension — with the humans, not the beasts, of course. We’re not dealing with children anymore, after all. But how one misses the cast of Hogwarts teachers and the camaraderie and rivalry between the pupils.
Indeed, you have to wait until one of the final reveals for one of film’s biggest surprises, one which promises much in the years to come. I know some reviewers have already let this particular cat out of the bag — or the suitcase, I suppose — but I shan’t spoil it, save to say that a major star is involved.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has all the makings of a huge family blockbuster, but all the bloated traps of those, too. It hasn’t quite got the balance right, but, like the title hints, surely knows where to find the magic formula over the ensuing movies. I’d check down that cheeky Niffler’s pouch, for starters.