At the risk of offending Harry Potter fans, my interest in author J.K. Rowling’s world is limited. My opinions can be written off since I haven’t read the books and my perception of her work through movies is most likely missing something essential, but I’m just here to write about how they’ve worked for me as movies –and where the new “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” fits in.
After eight Harry Potter movies (based on Rowling’s seven novels) made Warner Bros. a fortune, the plea for the author to provide new material was certain. For now, we can be thankful that the movie business did not force a needless excuse to return to Hogwarts for more magical school shenanigans.
The Harry Potter movies were a mixed bag for me. They were launched at a time when studios felt enabled to emulate fantasy worlds through the boom of computer generated effects, which had gone from simply enhancing filmed content to flooding the average movie frame. Anything was possible, but there was no guarantee that indulging this new hybrid of animation and live-action filmmaking would have the same transporting effect as the fantasy movies that had come before. Regardless of so many advances, this continues to be the case.
The storytelling in the Potter films was often bogged-down by action set pieces, which usually left me trying to remember what was going on when the plot managed to get going again. I remember the fourth movie being so full of holes that I got into arguments with fans who said that I needed to have read the book, leading me to ask, “Then why make a movie at all?!”
Through the movies, I saw a fantasy world that didn’t have enough limitations to make me feel afraid for its characters. There were too many spells and powers that could turn around a sticky situation for me to feel like anyone was ever really in – or out of – danger.
I admit that most of these criticisms apply to a lot of fantasy series, including ones I love, but for the Potter films, it was always a little more noticeable.
What I liked about the films was how they offered an entire generation of kids the ability to grow up with its characters from the cute first entry to the serious finale. Their whimsical charm and atmosphere were rather winning as well and felt inspired by the entertainments of Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Just about all of that winning atmosphere survives in the spin-off prequel “Fantastic Beasts,” and with Rowling working as its screenwriter with the best director of the Potter series, David Yates, at the helm, they brought to life a pretty admirable concept.
Different time. Different place. Different characters. The film is set in New York during the 1920s as the world-traveling English wizard, Newt (Eddie Redmayne), arrives with a mysterious suitcase that is somehow harboring an excessive amount of magical creatures, which he is protecting and trying to return to their proper habitats.
In a strange mishap at a bank, this case is accidentally switched with one filled with sample products by a lonely amateur baker (Dan Fogler) trying to get a loan to open his own business. When he gets home and opens the wizard’s case, several beasts escape, causing mayhem in the city.
Meanwhile, Tina (Katherine Waterston), a magic government agent, takes Newt into her custody for breaking various American magic laws concerning the permission to bring mystical animals into the country and their threat in exposing the hidden world of witches and wizards. With an unrelated force of supernatural destruction taking place in the city, Newt is under suspicion for being responsible.
After finding the baker, the trio set out on a mission to find the beasts before more damage is done.
“Fantastic Beasts” takes a proper direction for the great amount of now grown-up Harry Potter fans by using adult protagonists in a universe-expanding story. Aside from my normal gripes about indulgent CGI and loosely defined magic rules, it’s a pretty fun story with amusing characters and a great atmosphere.
The film’s big problem is in its small story – which would have made a great pilot episode for a TV series – feeling so drawn out to fit a long movie. The film’s sense of pace is oftentimes awkward, and the character chemistry isn’t developed enough to be worth some of the lengthy cartoonish scenes.
The obvious aspect of this film’s existence – and the likely sequels to follow – is that it is another maneuver by Warner Bros. to compete with Disney’s various successful franchises by taking one of their successful properties and imitating the same universe-building business tactics. Compared to their wretched DC comics movies of late, “Fantastic Beasts” feels a little more inspired, but I could have done without all the deliberate loose ends and the famous actor cameo near the end, both attempting to get me to come back for more.
I still truly miss a time when major studios could be content in producing a charming well-rounded escapist film that could exist happily by itself. VT