Bestselling author and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut with the tangentially Potter related spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but that’s hardly the greatest appeal of this fantastical wizarding adventure. Rowling’s greenness as a screenwriter often runs afoul of her skills as a storyteller. Without having to adapt her own previously existing material, Rowling has to create something more or less from scratch (with only a textbook written by a character that never actually had a life of its own) for a medium she hasn’t attempted before. While she flounders as a first time feature screenwriter, the film benefits from an injection of fresh blood and some old collaborators who understand the beats of her writing very well.
Scholarly eccentric Brit (and expelled Hogwarts student) Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne) has devoted his life to the study and collection of endangered magical beasts; creatures feared and misunderstood by both humans and wizards alike. His travels bring him to New York City circa 1926 where he runs afoul of not only a culture clash, but a dark force that has been wreaking havoc on humans and threatening to uncover the secret wizarding world. After accidentally switching his bottomless briefcase of wonders (complete with its own various ecosystems) with that of a kindly human named Jacob (Dan Fogler), he runs afoul of a go-getting, fallen from grace detective with the Magical Congress of the United States of America named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, they have to recover the missing creatures that have escaped from Newt’s case and save the world from a dark, uncontrollable force of unknown origin.
I understand that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the beginning of a franchise, but with only a set amount of screen time to work with, Rowling’s ideas are often crashing into each other haphazardly, all while trying to mount a conventional sort of popcorn blockbuster. Newt has his own motives for his trip. Jacob develops a verboten, but adorable romance with Tina’s mind reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). Tina constantly finds herself at odds with her obviously somewhat evil boss, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, who gets the short end of the stick here because he’s almost immediately shown as being up to no good, so there’s no ambiguity or suspense to seeing him turn up) and the president of the magic police (Carmen Ejogo, mostly glowering and always sounding dire and humourless). There’s a newspaper baron (Jon Voight) whose son is mounting a senate campaign. There’s talk about a heinously evil wizard who has been missing for quite some time. Then there’s the matter of “The Second-Salemers,” a religious organization whose organizer (Samantha Morton) beats her shy, magic curious son (Ezra Miller) mercilessly and regularly, and who wants to start up some brand new witch trials.
I kind of had an idea of what was going on, but I was never sure when the film would ever get around to settling on a single plot of any kind. Some of this all ties together, but most of it gets wrapped up so neatly that these elements aren’t even setting anything up for a sequel. By the time the film pole vaults into its own relatively disappointing climax and into more endings than the final Lord of the Rings film, it turns out that almost all of it doesn’t matter, making it either filler or very lightweight seeds being sown for future installments. It doesn’t help that Rowling consistently sabotages her easy to follow but labyrinthine narrative by stopping things every ten minutes or so for elaborate set pieces where Redmayne, Fogler, and Waterston have to capture a beast (like a kleptomaniac platypus looking thing or trying to tame a particularly horny rhino thing in Central Park). The set pieces are a lot of fun, but whenever they came up – which was often – I was always in danger of retaining everything the film told me to keep track of.
Her vision, however, remains astounding, just in need of some paring, pruning, and tasteful restraint here and there. It all works, but it could work so much better if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them wasn’t trying to cram three films of material into one entry. She’s enough of a big shot to pretty much earn a blank cheque from Warner Brothers at this point, so she could have taken things a bit slower, and hopefully if this becomes the megahit it’s purported to be, she can rectify it in future entries.
One thing that comes through expertly is her ability to create fascinating characters that dole out little bits and pieces of their lives through actions and casual chats rather than exposition packed speeches or unnecessary narration. Her ability to create likeable characters, ambiguous middlemen, and loathsome supervillains has always seemed effortless, and that comes through here with performances that the cast can sink their teeth into.
Redmayne makes for a likeable hero, making Newt just skittish and awkward enough to be engaging instead of off putting. He has wonderful chemistry with Waterston and Fogler, both of whom deliver the best and warmest performances in the film alongside the thoroughly charming work put in by the scene stealing Sudol. Much like with the Potter films, these are characters that I wouldn’t mind spending more time with in the future.
Another major asset is the return of frequent Potter director David Yates, someone who understands Rowling’s blend of character, drama, whimsy, and action almost innately. Yates wants to make this a showstopping film on a visual level, constantly staying in motion and panning around the scenery to show the grandeur, wonder, and period detail of every bit of production design. He knows when things need to be sped up, and with the exception of the overlong coda and final battle sequence, he knows when they need to be slowed down. He’s able to bring out the best in Rowling’s material, even if the successful scribe is still getting a handle on the screenwriting thing.