Were we to ask a Magic-8 Ball if we should expect greatness of the new movie set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world,” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, we’d no doubt get the answer “Signs Point to Yes.” This is a spinoff from the $8 billion-grossing Harry Potter film series, the first entry to be personally screenwritten by Potter novelist J.K. Rowling, and coming off the heels of her critically acclaimed playwriting debut with two blockbuster original West End Potter sequels. I have heard the cash cow moo.
And yet Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the sort of movie many will feel obliged to like more than they actually want to clamor right back onto the ride. Directed by David Yates, who helmed the last four Potter films, Fantastic Beasts offers wall-to-wall visual effects (I hesitate to call them “special” effects), enough to make some of us long to just look at something that’s actually there, please. Most of Oscar-winning star Eddie Redmayne’s best “dialogue” turns out to be unrequited by the pixels to which it is directed.
Redmayne plays magizoologist Newt Scamander, keeper of a well-used magical suitcase housing those fantastic beasts (like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside). In a move that seems both narratively practical and winkingly pointed, Fantastic Beasts is an immigrant story from its first scene, as British-born-and-bred Scamander arrives at 1926 Ellis Island and amusingly makes it through customs without declaring to the Muggle there what he’s really packing.
In America, he soon learns, Muggles are called “No-Maj”s and the struggle is just as real between them and those schooled in the existence of magic. In short, beasts get loose and Newt and his new friends must chase after them. It’s a story of containment, both of the beasts and the baddies threatening war: “Second Salem-ers” protesting witchcraft (Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller) and, somewhere in the shadows, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Big Star I Won’t Spoil for Those Who Don’t Know). And I’m not so sure we can trust Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Director of Magical Security for the Magical Congress of the United States of America.
On paper, it all sounds pretty darn interesting, but on screen over 132 minutes, it can be dangerously predictable and dully fake-y. The characters aren’t very interesting, although they can be endearing. Redmayne’s eccentrically mousy Newt and, in particular, his new No-Maj friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) prove amusing enough, and each gets a this-side-of-generic love interest (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as sisters ready for action and, even more so, reaction). Better yet is the 1920s New York milieu, which Yates keeps blasting away and rebuilding, magic-style.
The Potter balance of whimsy and darkness means to tip more to whimsy here, but it doesn’t take hold as well as you’d hope. The exposition never quits (at one point a character moves through a crowd explaining, “They killed my son. I want justice!” as if he were explaining he dropped his watch somewhere and needs to find it), and the action seldom dies down long enough for the movie to become about something, anything. In hindsight, an early exchange says it all for this wan first entry in a new five-film franchise. A fanatic asks Newt, “Are you a seeker? A seeker after truth?” He replies, “I’m more of a chaser, really.”