“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
2 hours, 13 minutes
After years of discussion and months of breathless advertising, the latest film from the world of Harry Potter, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” is finally here, and the result is … frustrating.
There are parts of the movie that definitely work, and parts that don’t, but which part is which may be different for different people. That the film is receiving middling reviews is somewhat problematic for Warner Brothers, who have ordered a full five more films in this latest iteration of the series. It’s no doubt, however, that hordes of families went to see the show this weekend, so at least the profit potential is there. I just don’t know about repeat viewings.
Speaking of repeat viewings, guess who went to see this mediocre movie twice in one weekend? This guy. I went to see it first with my wife and some friends, ostensibly to preview it before taking my first- and third-graders, but really just because we wanted to see it. After watching it, we decided it was fine for my son in third grade, but might be a little frightening for my daughter. There are only a few really scary scenes, but they are pretty intense.
The next day, I took my son and his friend for viewing number two. I didn’t really gain anything from a second showing, except that my favorite parts, the beasts themselves, were still fun.
For those who don’t know, the movie is about Newt Scamander, a twitchy British writer who travels to America in the 1920s carrying a case full of bizarre creatures. Though he has no ill intention, being in the wrong place at the wrong time results in disaster and Newt inadvertently finds himself smack in the middle of a magical controversy involving the Magical Congress of the United States (think our version of the Ministry of Magic), a group of witch hating protesters called the Second Salem, and a schlub of a cannery worker with aspirations of opening up a bakery. Surprisingly, that last character is the most interesting and likeable in the entire story.
The main problem with this movie is that the plot is wildly disconnected. You can get that sense early on when shortly after we see a mysterious villain obliterate a team of pursuers, we are treated the first of our cute and cuddly creatures, a furry, waddling platypus who enjoys tucking shiny things into his belly.
The stuff with the Second Salem is legitimately scary, and would make for a really interesting movie on its own, but it’s odd when it’s undercut by scenes of a giant bulbous hippo-nocerous who seems intent on mating with the aforementioned baker.
The movie is a little over two hours, and at least 15 minutes too long. I was mentally checking off plot points that could be exorcised (an entire subplot about a newspaper magnate seems to only exist to allow Jon Voight a chance to cameo) when it occurred to me that Newt and his travails really don’t affect the main plot at all. The main throughline, involving the Salemers, the villainous criminal from the beginning, and Magical Congress, is affected not at all by the magical creatures until the very last moment, and even that (Newt comes up with a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem) feels like an afterthought.
The plot issues with the film aren’t helped by the fact that the characters aren’t very likeable or interesting. Newt, as played by Eddie Redmayne, is just odd, but not quite odd enough to be watchable. I wondered if he was literally being played as though he was autistic, which would have been an interesting take on the character, but that’s unclear.
Newt teams up with sisters, one an officer of the Congress and the other her psychic sibling, but neither has much to offer, both played too wispy and pouty, almost like caricatures from a twenties cartoon.
The only character I really enjoyed, of the leads, is Dan Fogler’s baker character, Jacob Kowalski. Fogler plays it broad, too, but he provides a nice bridge between the two different movies, and at the very least, he’s likeable and funny.
One of the big challenges “Fantastic Beasts” faces is that, unlike its bespectacled descendant, there is no built-in love for the characters or places. There is a book that the film is tenuously based on, but that short work is really just a cute listing of magical creatures in alphabetical order. There is no plot, per se — the book is really just ephemera, but in the calm after the money storm that was the “Harry Potter” franchise, Warner Brothers was desperate for any chance to keep the cash rolling in. The disconnect between the source material and the film is indicative of the disconnect in the plot, a fully-formed magical mystery with cute animals shoe-horned in. That the magical creatures are the most enjoyable part of the story doesn’t really do much to recommend the film as a whole.
I know it sounds like I’m piling on the film — it’s not that bad. I went to see it twice, so it’s not trash or anything. It’s just that was a lot of build-up and a lot of anticipation based on the goodwill the Harry Potter connection. My reaction to “Fantastic Beasts” is very similar to how I feel about “The Hobbit.” I really looked forward to that film, but after it arrived I had to seriously question whether it was necessary.
There are more “Fantastic Beasts” coming and hopefully the filmmakers can even out the tone. There’s a good movie in there somewhere, I’m sure of it.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is rated PG-13 for magical scares, some of them pretty intense.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.