And somewhere in this troubled setup – penned by Potter’s famous author J.K. Rowling, no less – is a thread of insecurity so persistent that the plot loses its foothold just as the momentum should be taking over, leading us into a barrage of meandering episodes that lack the compelling gravity you would expect out of this ambitious world. Maybe the idea of setting such a premise within such a well-known universe handicaps the prospects at something thorough, especially when coupled with the unflattering anchors that routinely befall prequels; for some, Rowling’s attempts run the equivalent of telling an origin story in Middle Earth thousands of years prior to “The Lord of the Rings.” She possesses a firm grip on creating elaborate scenarios, and director David Yates (also a “Harry Potter” staple) knows how to fill them with a plethora of compelling images, but where does it all lead? The answer doesn’t necessarily equate failure, but even at passable entertainment the picture falls far short of the enormous expectations that come with the Potter reputation.
Those realities are further reflected in the face of the hero, a man whose social awkwardness is the conduit for a series of complicated encounters that will ultimately unravel menacing agendas lurking in the shadows. Redmayne plays the character using the same notes that informed his portrayals in “The Danish Girl” and “The Theory of Everything”: with a dose of charisma that is masked by silent insecurities. That works well in the movie’s early scenes, when one of the creatures Newt hoards – a mischievous thing that resembles the platypus – escapes the suitcase and wanders into the local bank, where it becomes addicted to hoarding “shiny” coins. Newt’s perfunctory chase of the little beast of course intercepts a side-plot involving an eccentric man (Dan Fogler) trying to get a bank loan to open a local Bakery, and a variety of bumbling mistakes and loud run-ins catch further attention from Tina (Katherine Waterston), a local agent for New York’s “Magical Congress” who apprehends Newt for causing uproar in public places. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the human bystander – Kowalski – is left to wander away from the scene, all while unknowingly coming into the possession of those fantastical beasts during an accidental swap of suitcases.
Several of them escape, much to the displeasure of magical authorities already putting out random fires throughout the city. Among those sorts is Graves (Colin Farrell), an agent investigating strange disturbances that may have been triggered by renegade wizards (one, ominously dubbed “Grimwald,” is routinely referenced throughout the picture). Meanwhile, a family of religious fundamentalists led by a crazed mother (Samantha Morton) occasionally interjects suggestions among peers that witches live among her neighbors, adding to the hysteria of humans while the magic practitioners go about their own hidden affairs. Added dynamics supplied by a political subplot and a magical romantic interest for Kowalski complicate Newt’s attempts at taking back all of the creatures currently loose in the middle of Manhattan, and there is even time for Rowling’s screenplay to take a detour to a goblin-operated nightclub of flappers, where the heroic entourage attempts to barter with a seedy manager (voiced by Ron Perlman), who is willing to trade knowledge on the whereabouts of some of these beasts in exchange for something more precious.
Avid enthusiasts of the Potter doctrine are conscious of the maddening complexities that come with a plot penned by their favored writer, but up until now that reality has always been to the service of a central focus. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has an idea of who that should be but no follow-through; it is so enamored by the aesthetic and the wonder of fleeting moments that it forgets about people and situations, sometimes long enough to reduce one’s perception of them to peripheral detail. In some instances, we are ok with that prospect, particularly when it comes to the heavy-handed moments involving Morton and her stone-faced children; the scenes exhibit such a chilly distance from the more lighthearted whimsy that one wonders what business they have in a premise of such innocence. The creatures themselves, admittedly, are a triumph of visual effects; some – like a giant bird that grows to the size of its environment – are fascinating to glance up at during key moments, and there is a rather thorough visualization of the inside of Newt’s suitcase, which is like a Noah’s ark of living treasures. David Yates clearly has more fun with this sort of material than the gloomier stuff – which he is far more familiar with – and it’s easy to see why: they have the charm and spirit of a fresh discovery, as if someone had wandered onto the shores a world rich in new sensations.
In many ways, those traits are worth admiring beyond their tonal constraints. For every lost subplot or missed narrative opportunity, a visual routinely emerges that enriches the senses in a way that negates their haphazard context, leaving one with feelings of unspoiled enthusiasm by the time it all comes to a crashing halt in the climax. My admiration for the images far outweighs even my reservations about the dramatic shifts and the abandon of pivotal character development. But what it necessary for Rowling, such a gifted scribe, to cram so much into a launch point endeavor when the studio promised follow-ups well before production was underway? What would have been the harm in permitting these ideas to evolve gradually over time instead of cramming them all into the bedrock of a single film? “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has moments of grandeur that recall the greatest strokes of its most famous cousin, but few are going to give their hearts entirely over to a film that mixes those values with gloomy contradictions, especially when they lack sound reasoning.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Fantasy/Action/Adventure (US); 2016; Rated PG-13; Running Time: 133 Minutes
Eddie Redmayne: Newt
Dan Fogler: Kowalski
Katherine Waterston: Tina
Alison Sudol: Queenie
Colin Farrell: Graves
Samantha Morton: Mary Lou
Ezra Miller: Credence Barebone
Faith Wood-Blagrove: Modesty Barebone
Produced by Neil Blair, David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Tim Lewis, J.K. Rowling, Rick Senat, Michael Sharp and Lionel Wigram; Directed by David Yates; Written by J.K. Rowling