Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directors: David Yates
Reviewed: 27 November 2016
I do not think that reading a book should be a prerequisite to enjoying a film, though I will admit with every Harry Potter film I had read its antecedent work. That world had the routine of school, familiar growing faces of students and teachers, and the sheer amount of time spent in that world paid off in generosity when viewing the films, which obviously truncated massive amounts of text. I think about that now when I view the J.K. Rowling penned Fantastic Beasts and my lack of reading about it. I wonder how dramatically different the experience would have been if I had spent ten to twenty hours in this world before seeing it.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York in the 1920's with a suitcase full of marvelous creatures who run amuck and disrupt the American wizarding community. Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced auror, tries to bring him to justice while an innocent factory worker named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) bumps into Newt and switches briefcases with him. The beginning scenes set in motion a vast plot of conspiratorial ministers like Graves (Colin Farrell) in the American Congress of Magic, the dance of keeping the magical hiding from the non-magical (No-Maj, they are called here, not Muggles), and a shadowy spectral force that is blowing up buildings and harming people all over the city.
I think the look of the film and its music and costumes are a highlight. However, Yates suffers from George Lucas prequel-esque showmanship with the special effects while not giving the audience enough time to peer deeply into the world. For example, there is a little guy, a sort of mini-tree Groot-type friend that Newt speaks to occasionally, yet Yates gives him only one close-up in the entire film to give us a sense of his personality. The beasts, though primarily fun, represent a tactile, physical counterpoint to the magical world, and I like that contrast, even if the action to me seemed a bit difficult to follow, the names swallowed by the under-emoting, especially of Redmayne. I never felt charmed by his character or performance, which seemed uneven and mumbly to me. I had trouble following the plot and its turns, and I really needed subtitles for many of the names of the characters and beasts. The ending seemed especially troubling to me because it was incomprehensible at times, I did not understand the stakes, and it seemed smugly satisfied with its revelations, though they meant little to me. And, I like Collin Farrell too much to see him relegated to so little here.
I wonder about the fundamental differences between screenwriting and writing a novel. J.K. Rowling, a modern master, tries her hand her at concise and visual storytelling, a paring down of prose that reminds me of how skillful the screenwriters of the Harry Potter films were in making judicious decisions. I also just did not feel the emotional power or resonance of these characters or this moment; to hear that this film might spark four additional films with these characters did not fill me with excitement, merely exhaustion. However, there is a chance that continuing to play with the past and different locations than Hogwarts can yield a far more rich evocation of magic than this one. This muggle was uninspired.