The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



A Magical Menagerie

Eddie Redmayne
Eddie Redmayne
Warner Brothers
 133 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Hollywood’s desire to milk every last dollar out of a successful property can best be demonstrated by Peter Jackson’s attempt to transform The Hobbit, a modest 200-page book written by J.R.R. Tolkien some 20 years before he penned the Lord of the Rings books, into three separate movies, rivaling the original Rings trilogy in length. Now, however, Jackson has to take a back seat to J.K. Rowling. The creator of Harry Potter and all his friends finally brought that series to a successful conclusion after seven books and eight movies. In order to continue the Hogwarts universe onscreen, however, Rowling and her corporate partners at Warner Brothers have latched onto a 100-page novelty volume originally written to whet fan interest during a lull in the Potter series and are in the process of turning that book into five movies. As you might expect, there’s plenty of the Potter vibe here, but a number of dull stretches as well.


Making even one movie out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would seem to be a task requiring wizardry of Albus Dumbledorean proportions. Rowling’s book has no plot whatsoever; it’s simply a journal describing dozens of mythical creatures that the “author,” a wizard named Newt Scamander who was expelled from Hogwarts, found during his travels. Obviously, any screenwriter would need to flesh that material out considerably to make a movie, and, not surprisingly, Rowling wanted to ensure that the eventual film or films were true to her vision of the Potter universe. As a result, Rowling herself wrote the screenplay of Fantastic Beasts, her first credited screenplay.


The movie is set in New York City in the 1920’s, the approximate time that Newt would have written his book. Newt (Eddie Redmayne) and beasts arrive in New York by boat en route to Arizona, where he plans to release the beasts in the wide open desert spaces where they will have plenty of freedom to roam and he can study them properly. Since a modern day Noah leading dozens of creatures heretofore unseen in the civilized world would attract considerable attention, Newt carries them in his suitcase, one that seems to have a nearly infinite storage capacity.


Unfortunately for Newt, some of his creatures manage to get loose, and Newt winds up in the company of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a no-Maj (the American version of a Muggle, or, in non-Potter terms, a non-wizard). Soon, Newt and Jacob are introduced to New York’s magical subculture, a society that, just as in the Potter books and films, exists right in the middle of everyday New Yorkers. Their introduction to that society comes in the form of sisters Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudel), a couple of witches who bring Newt in front of the Magical Congress, the governing body of all the wizards in the United States. Their primary goal is to keep no-Maj’s in the dark about who they are.


There are three main storylines in Fantastic Beasts and one is much more interesting and entertaining than the other two. The entertaining storyline, which, alas, wraps up far too early, involves Newt’s efforts to recapture the beasts that have escaped, which include some CGI-generated delights like a larcenous platypus-like creature (see the scene below), a tiny walking plant-creature that looks like a mini-Groot, and a large rhino-like beast. Since Rowling did not include any pictures of these creatures in the source book, the filmmakers had a good bit of license in deciding how to portray them in the movie, and they managed come up with some truly inspired creations. Newt’s efforts to corral these creatures, with the aid of Kowalski and his new magical friends, are both hilarious at times and exciting.


In crafting these scenes, however, Rowling had the advantage of, at least, some fully developed background descriptions of her creatures. In her other storylines, she’s on her own, and her inexperience as a screenwriter shows. One storyline concerns an evil spirit called an obscurus that has been unleashed on New York City, causing massive destruction. The obscurus typically inhabits the bodies of children and channels their anger and fear in a most powerful manner. In her investigation of the obscurus, Tina traces the spirit to an orphanage straight out of Charles Dickens, run by an abusive woman (Samantha Morton) who continually warns the public about the existence of witches and wizards. The second, related storyline concerns the plotting of Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Security Director for the Magical Congress, who believes that wizards should use their powers to rule the world.


Fantastic Beasts has plenty of good material from which a veteran screenwriter could have crafted a good script, but, in Rowling’s hands, it never quite comes together. Instead, we get an incredibly dull second half hour of the film, enlivened only by the obscurus taking down a political banquet, and a finale replete with people waving magic wands at each other that delivers plenty of sound and fury, not to mention extensive visual effects, but not much that’s at all memorable. And, at the end of the film, when it is a heavily disguised Johnny Depp appears as what will undoubtedly be the villain in the inevitable Beasts sequel, the audience greeted the reveal with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.


I think the reason that much of Fantastic Beasts failed to resonate with the audience is due to the fact that the characters in this film are overwhelmingly quite adult. The Harry Potter books and films worked because the main characters were children who became young adults by the end of the series. Despite what some fans wanted, a movie about a 40-year-old Harry simply wouldn’t work; the wonderment is not there. The series was always about young adults, those both in the books and films and the millions more reading or watching them, and even when matters became quite serious and often somber in the later books, the sense of magic was always present.


In Beasts, the magic is only sporadically present, most notably in the beasts themselves, which are overwhelmingly lovable (and naturals for stuffed tie-in replicas), and, among the adults, primarily in Newt and Kowalski, both of whom seem quite childlike themselves at times. This is Fogler’s best film work, and a welcome respite from the moronic sidekicks he invariably seems to play. Kowalski is a cuddly Boy Scout type who one hopes will be involved in the next film. Redmayne also manages to portray the more mischievous, fun loving side of Newt. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast seems to think they are on the set of American Horror Story, most notably a glum Colin Farrell and an over-the-top Samantha Morton. Rowling seems to have little interest in these characters other than as plot devices to bring about the movie’s final CGI-laden showdown.


Fans of the Potter franchise will adore Newt’s beasts and the various “Easter egg” references to Potter lore. I’m not a die-hard fan, but I have to admit that Newt and, especially, Kowalski grew on me as Fantastic Beasts went along. I’m hoping that, for the next movie, J.K. Rowling will relinquish the screenwriter role completely and simply serve as an advisor on the film. As for the present movie, it’s fantastic only when beasts are present and not when it’s just some depressingly adult wizards on display.

In this scene, Eddie Redmayne tries to recapture one of his missing beasts.

Read other reviews of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) on IMDb