Not even J.K. Rowling can say abracadabra and make a worthwhile movie franchise appear. The lightning that struck Harry Potter once merely grazes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, turning the sorcerer's mentor into a fantasy apprentice.
In her screenwriting debut, Rowling practically starts from scratch, diverting fan traffic to Newt Scamander, played with an embarrassment of bashful tics by Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne. Newt supposedly penned the Hogwarts textbook on creatures, later ghost-written by Rowling for charity.
Compared to Harry's seven published doorstops, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a slim, shaky foundation upon which to build a proposed five-movie arc. Rowling and director David Yates get the beasties right, a menagerie of mutant and spliced species. It's the people, wizards and Muggles alike, who aren't convincing, nor their stories as compelling, at least not yet.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them begins in 1926, decades before Harry, across the pond from England in New York, where a Muggle is called a No-Maj, for "no magic." Newt is completing another leg of his dogged search for new and endangered creatures, smuggled in a suitcase in an obvious customs violation. Long, winding story short, the critters escape and the plot veers into elaborate rounds of Pokémon Go.
Newt's arrival is noticed by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted agent for the Magical Congress of the USA, keeping the lid on wizarding activities. No-Majs are paranoid about magic after dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald ravaged Europe and threatens New York. The darker allegories of Rowling's story are at constant odds with the whimsy attached to Newt's beasts.
Porpentina and her psychic sister (Alison Sudol) joins his search for a No-Maj wannabe baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose suitcase was switched with Newt's. An anti-witchcraft zealot (Samantha Morton) and her sullen son (Ezra Miller) are sniffing around. A fat cat politician (Jon Voight) wants his city feeling safer with his son in office. On everyone's trail is Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), head of the congress's secret police.
That's a lot of territory to lay out, and we haven't gotten to Gellert Grindelwald, who's nearly forgotten while everyone else is casting spells and setting up sequels. He's apparently the Voldemort of the impending saga, brought to the fore late with a left-field twist. It's already spoiled that Johnny Depp will play Grindelwald in future chapters. His cameo here doesn't make that idea any more appealing.
Yates gives us the old CGI razzle dazzle to cover the screenplay's inherent issues as an origins story, and Rowling's comparably scant attention to fantasy details. There's little about the beasts that's practical; what does a snake do with small wings, anyway? It's also a problem when two of a movie's most memorable effects are a perfect strudel baked in mid air and Groot: The Sprout Years.
It's possible that these narrative scraps will eventually converge into a thrilling story. Perhaps Redmayne's calculated efforts to avoid eye contact won't remain annoying as young Hugh Grant's stammer in conveying shy charm. Right now, it doesn't look promising. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a No-Maj movie.
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