By Marc. S. Sanders
I really do like the Wizarding World of J.K. Rowling. The attention to detail is marvelous. The landscapes she has painted over eight best-selling books that follow the adventures of a boy wizard, are limitless. A new kind of fun vocabulary was invented thanks to her colorful imagination. Still, she needs an editor! Even if it is not a novel, her recent screenplays that follow the escapades of another magical protagonist, Newt Scamander, and his small, distressed suitcase drift off into so many side stories, it is difficult to focus on a central plot at play. While some might appreciate the assortment of distractions, for me it grows a little frustrating.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (great title) is the first of what will become five new films that focus on an earlier time before the famous boy who lived was ever born. Rowling takes the magic to New York City for the odd, but adorably likable Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to accompany his suitcase that carries the most unusual creatures that any other fantasy has likely ever introduced. There’s a platypus duck thing that has a penchant for stealing jewelry and coin; perfect for stuffed animal merchandising at Universal Studios. There’s a purplish-blue mosquito that twittles around. There’s a dragon and an elephant/rhino combo thing. There are bright green grasshoppers that hide in Newt’s jacket pocket. It’s an encyclopedia of Rowling wildlife.
Newt arrives in Depression era New York and some of the creatures flip the buckles on the suitcase open, and before you know it, he’s chasing them through the streets. Soon after, he gets his bag mixed up with another one belonging to a lovable baker “No Maj” (American term for “Muggle” or non-magic person) named Stanley Kowalski (Dan Fogler). From there, a partnership is forged, and the men are pursuing the missing animals through the city bank, the zoo, tenement buildings and jewelry shops. Romantic angles serve the men by way of magical sisters, Tina and Queenie (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol).
Parallel to all of this are concerns of a magic criminal known as Grindlewald who is making headlines for his various worldwide offenses. The North American magic congress is disturbed by these events and rely on a man named Graves (Colin Farrell) to investigate. As well, there is a No Maj woman (Samantha Morton) leading a chorus of city folk and politicians (including Jon Voight) in the hunt for what are believed to be witches and those that are committing crimes of witchcraft. This woman serves also as a foster mother to numerous children, two of which are known as Credence and Modesty (Ezra Miller and Faith Wood-Blagrove). These two in particular are curiously quiet with a dark way about them.
So, yeah! There’s a lot going on here. There are a lot of stories to explore and a lot of characters to meet. As well, there are a lot of animals to learn about.
David Yates has become the go to director for the Harry Potter franchise and he takes up the mantle here as well. This first film in the new series is gorgeous to look at with its period piece art design and the CGI special effects blend nicely with the human actors.
However, the film loses itself over and over again with the different avenues it takes. One moment we are supposed to feel the tension of Grindlewald on the loose. Then we are getting into madcap mischief with two other characters chasing down silly creatures seemingly inspired by a Jumanji theme. We are also treated to an opportunity to literally step down into the suitcase for a whole other world of different settings where these animals are meant to be housed. It’s wonderous for sure and Yates simply allows time for observation and nothing else. Intermittently within the film, we also end up following these two dark children who are altogether disturbing, and we wonder why. How and when do they come into play? Rowling’s script is more concerned with painting broad strokes of new environments, rather than staying focused on one trajectory. At times, I’m asking myself, where did we leave off with this storyline or that storyline.
Eddie Redmayne is adorably quirky, but maybe a little too much. He has the “Willy Wonka” palette to his wrangler occupation. Though, his dialogue gets swallowed in his modified English accent and it is difficult to comprehend what he is saying. He’s deliberately mumbling his words to build upon the oddities that come with Rowling’s character. Newt has a name for each creature in the film, but there’s no way I could understand what he calls them. I don’t even think his acting partner, Dan Fogler, understands everything being said to him. On this latest viewing with my wife, we opted to turn the subtitles on our 4K player.
The characters are suitably atmospheric for the dark and unusual that stems from Rowling’s imagination. Colin Farrell always plays well as the handsome, yet brooding man of mystery. Ezra Miller seems to come from the cloth of a Tim Burton iteration. Fogler’s character is the best though. His expressions of stare at the amazements he’s witnessing for the first time represent the audience. He’s not the bumbling fool that other storytellers might depict him to be. He truly can’t believe his eyes at first, but eventually builds an affinity for the fantasy in front of him.
The ending somehow brings all of these characters together. It is engaging for sure with an action-packed encounter with a black cloud blob within the underground subway tracks. Then it is concluded with a celebrity cameo that teases of what’s to come.
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is not unwatchable, but it requires extra attention so that you can recall where one story leaves off and then later resumes itself. Often, I found myself asking how did I get here, and then my mind would wander and I’d get distracted from the continuing narrative.
There’s no doubt of the kind of power and influence J.K. Rowling has. If only someone would be brave enough to offer her a little constructive criticism, though. The Fantastic Beasts series was originally meant to be a trilogy of films. Then her contract with Warner Bros expanded to five films. You know what? With all that Rowling has to share with us, I think she might need ten or twelve films.