It wasn’t until I watched the Harry Potter prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” that I realized what made J.K. Rowling’s books and the movies based on them work so well, something that’s missing from “FBAWTFT”: children, and a sense of discovery.
The Hogwarts kids, though they grew up (most of them) in magical households, were just beginning to find their own abilities, just learning how to make the magic happen. Their world was brand-new to us, and it was also new to them. Their wonder and enthusiasm mixed with ours. We were on the ride together.
“Fantastic Beasts” is about adults, not kids, and they aren’t novices. They already know the magical world. Moreover, so do we. We read 4,175 pages and watched 19 hours and 40 minutes’ worth of movies. Believe us, we are experts on this stuff. We aren’t dazzled by this particular brand of magic anymore. Sure, sure – spells, wizards, witches, mythical creatures. What about ’em? Absent the thrill of learning something new and wonderful, Rowling’s world is commonplace.
It doesn’t help that “Fantastic Beasts” is burdened with a plodding, aimless story. It’s set in 1926 New York City, where Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a conservationist of magic animals, has come to pursue his research and specimen-gathering. While many in the magic community believe these beasts are too dangerous to be permitted to live, Scamander preserves and protects them, keeping them safe in his magic suitcase that is bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside.
Upon arriving in New York, Scamander, a fey, smiling, soft-spoken absent-minded professor type who won’t make eye contact, immediately accidentally switches his suitcase with that of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a Muggle who wants to open a bakery. (Think how many movie plots would never get off the ground if there were no such thing as two identical suitcases.) Kowalski is thus brought into the magical world. Like most characters in movies with supernatural elements, after a brief scene of shock and disbelief, he rolls with it pretty easily.
Scamander’s possession of forbidden beasts attracts the attention of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a low-level employee at MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic), and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a 1920s dizzy dame who can read minds and takes a shining to Kowalski. (Their sub-romance is cute.) While this is going on, MACUSA higher-up Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is investigating a series of destructive incidents that he believes were caused by these fantastic beasts. And while THIS is going on, a pious crusader named Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) is shouting at New Yorkers about the threat of real-life witches among us, using her adopted children (including a grown-up Ezra Miller in a Moe Howard haircut) to pass out anti-magic leaflets.
All of this takes forever, and I didn’t even mention the political Shaw family with Jon Voight as its patriarch, or the fact that the story doesn’t really have a villain. Written by Rowling herself (her first screenplay) and directed by David Yates (who made the last four Potter films), “Fantastic Beasts” wastes a lot of time on inessential escapades wherein a fantastic beast escapes from Scamander’s suitcase and he and Kowalski go looking for it. Only one of the creatures’ specific attributes ever proves useful to the story; the rest are interchangeable nonsense animals that look very neat and sometimes do amusing things but don’t serve any individual purposes. Instead of driving the story, they hinder it. Every time one gets loose, the plot shuts down.
Eddie Redmayne’s congenital weirdness, at times an asset (“Jupiter Ascending”), is a distraction here. Newt Scamander isn’t unlikable, exactly, but he’s off-putting, needlessly scatterbrained, and thinly written. The oft-annoying Dan Fogler, on the other hand, is put to good use as an eager, good-hearted schlub. Making him the protagonist instead of Scamander would lighten the sense of doom I feel when I remember they’re making four more of these, at least one of which will star Johnny Depp as the evil Gellert Grindelwald. Accio Tylenol.
C+ (2 hrs., 13 min.; )