Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first out of five potential entries of “Fantastic Beasts,” written by “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling and directed by returning “Potter” filmmaker David Yates, is a respectable but unimpressive introduction into the wizarding world of 1920s America. Gone is the sense of wonder which made the “Potter” series, especially its early installments, so intriguing. Instead, we are immediately placed in the middle of a possible conflict between the magic and non-magic communities through the eyes of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British magizoologist, one who studies oft misunderstood, endangered magical creatures.
Numerous strands are introduced—all of them interesting but not one is throughly explored. As a result, we feel the machinations of the plot to the fullest extent. Notice as we move from one scene to another, usually there is a choppiness to them; one minute we are supposed to be getting inside the minds and hearts of its characters as to understand their varying motivations and the next they are running around in a desperate attempt to capture the beasts that have escaped from the twitchy researcher’s suitcase. This is not due to editing. Rather, it is in how the screenplay is structured—an approach problem: so many pieces are introduced at once instead of naturally building off one another.
Conversely, too many fantasy-adventures simply do not have enough ideas to keep their respective boats afloat, so I suppose the opposite can be considered to be less of a problem. Still, it is an issue worth noting and, more importantly, fixing in the future films because its impact is tethered to the detriment of the viewing experience. Flow between scenes is so important in order to immerse us successfully into a specific world with specific rules and band of colorful characters.
As expected, the special and visual effects are top-notch for the most part. I enjoyed small but rewarding moments where Scamander simply shows and interacts with the creatures he wishes to understand further. These beasts vary in size, texture, and personality and so each one evokes a certain feeling. Although a few creatures shown are so flashy to the point where one cannot help but notice how colorful and polished they are—and thus distracting and taking us out of the moment—Redmayne has a way of looking at them as though Newt has forged a strong bond with them. There is clearly history there and so instances where he must employ the creatures’ talents in order to get him and his friends (Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler) out of tricky situations are believable and sometimes most amusing.
The political undercurrents ought to have been written smarter, stronger, more purposeful. Specifically, the situation in New York City is so tension-filled between magic and non-magic folks that any small thing could trigger an all-out war between the two factions, especially with a highly dangerous Dark Wizard named Gellert Grindewald having recently escaped from magical authorities. Samantha Morton is underused as a No-Maj (American term for “Muggle,” a non-magic person), leader of a sinisterly-named New Salem Philanthropic Society, who uses children to achieve her personal agendas.
Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is satisfying as a visual experience—rather than of deep thoughts and emotions. Viewers who loved the “Potter” series for its sense of wonder and youthful energy are likely to feel disappointed, but the film is able to establish a convincing 1920s milieu with characters we can grow to love in the future. But now that the introduction is out of the way, here’s to hoping that the filmmakers will aspire for depth.