Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is too elaborate, but good fun

Justin RemerMovies, Reviews, TheatricalLeave a Comment

fantasticbeastsposter_0The tendency toward serialization in current pop culture has proven a boon for television, with shows becoming more addictive and binge-able as the stories that are unpacked become more complex. Unfortunately, the same approach has been far more hit-and-miss in the realm of movies. When you have to pony up fifteen bucks (or probably more for 3D and IMAX), it feels like a cheat to sit in a theater through two hours or so of set-up for something better yet to come.

The new franchise-starter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, at least provides a solid self-contained adventure while it goes about the sometimes tedious business of world-building (or -expanding, since this is technically part of the Harry Potter universe) and setting up the rest of the planned series. Fantastic Beasts teams writer J.K. Rowling (her first screenplay credit) with director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films and gives this new one a comforting, familiar flavor.

At the center of Fantastic Beasts is wizard zoologist Newt Scamander, brought to awkward life by Eddie Redmayne. Newt is concerned with the preservation of endangered magical creatures, who are wrongly deemed dangerous by his fellow wizards. Newt arrives in New York City from England, headed out west, only to have some of the titular fantastic beasts escape from his suitcase and run rampant around the city. This sets him afoul of magic investigator Tina Goldstein (Inherent Vice‘s disarming Katherine Waterston), who tries to get back in the good graces of her bosses by bringing Newt in. Her superiors, which include the duplicitous Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), are instead more focused on an escaped baddie with the appropriately Rowling-esque name Grindelwald and also a “black wind” which has been tearing up parts of the city, threatening to expose the existence of the magical community.

The community is under pressure because of the presence of an anti-witch proselytizer, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and her abused, adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller), who have been stirring up support for a “Second Salem” witch hunt. She seeks help from Hearst-like power player Henry Shaw (Jon Voight), but he’s not sold on the idea of witches — just yet.

It’s a lot of characters and a lot of plot threads, but the film really works best when it is simply focused on Newt and his quest to wrangle his escaped animals. Newt enlists the help of would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose accidental grabbing of the wrong suitcase instigated this whole mess in the first place. Eventually Tina and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) join in on the effort, even if Tina is initially wary of working with Jacob, since he is a “no-maj” (short for “non-magical,” the American term for “muggles”).

The four main actors are so delightful — creating much more than the plot-heavy script offers them in character development — that it’s hard not to wish that Fantastic Beasts would have just stuck to them more. In fact, it’s fun to imagine what this could have been as a stand-alone film: rather than planting seeds for the reported four films to come (and bloating past the two hour mark), Rowling could have fully developed her main characters now rather than kicking that can down the road. As it is, the film is constantly and inelegantly trying to cram in slang and odd details about this throwback version of the Wizarding World. Rowling superfans should love it, and there’s plenty of charm and eye-catching CGI magic to satisfy casual moviegoers, but one suspects we’ll have to wait for another movie or two to start getting into the best of what this series will have to offer.
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Justin RemerMovie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is too elaborate, but good fun