This review originally appeared on Shawn's film review blog 'Oh, How Spiffing!'
I imagine Warner Bros (WB) studio execs, along with countless Harry Potter fans around the globe, practically wet themselves with excitement when J.K. Rowling agreed to pen a spinoff series. For fans, this marked a more-than-welcome excuse to return to Rowling’s universe. For WB, this was an opportunity to rake in the dough and help them compete with Disney’s flourishing Marvel and Star Wars franchises. As for me, I couldn’t have cared less.
Let me set the record straight: Yes, I’m a Harry Potter fan. In fact, I absolutely adore the series. I love the books, the films – I even spent my honeymoon in Orlando at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Despite all this, I wasn’t the least bit interested in this spinoff series. 'Why,' you ask? First of all, Rowling had already told her story and she’d done so beautifully; and under the expert tutelage of producer David Heyman, the film adaptations followed suit. The Potter series had concluded in glorious, satisfying fashion on both page and screen - so, why would I want more?
But while I was skeptical, I trusted in Rowling. Her involvement lent the new spinoff an aura of credibility and I hoped that this new story would not only enrich the legacy she had created, but would give me ample reason to hop on-board for future entries in the new franchise. Besides, when has the creator of a series going back to do a prequel series ever gone wrong?
Sadly, Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them contains all the negative connotations the term 'prequel' evokes. It is a plodding, tonally inconsistent mess. Its story and characters are uninvolving and it lacks the compelling, emotional core that made the Potter franchise such a joy. It was bad enough that we were going to get a trilogy of these films, but now we’re getting FIVE of them?! I solemnly swear Rowling and WB are up to no good.
For the most part, Fantastic Beasts follows the exploits of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkwardly eccentric wizard with a penchant for bizarre magical creatures. He travels to America from England on a personal trip and during a stopover in New York City, all manner of chaos ensues when the creatures in his trunk get lose and begin wreaking all kinds of havoc on the city. Along with muggle/No-Maj Jacob Kawalski (Dan Fogler), an aspiring baker with ambitions of opening a shop in the city, and Tina (Katherine Waterston) a recently-demoted auror looking to regain her position, Newt scampers about, attempting to recollect his creatures before the less thoughtful authorities do.
Intercut with this relatively lighthearted affair, is a dark and gloomy plot involving an orphanage and an abusive mother who runs an anti-witch/wizard cult out of it. Her adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller) is secretly working with the U.S. Magical Congress and having regular meetings with Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) to help Graves uncover information about a mysterious and destructive force that has appeared in the city. These scenes are shot in the most melancholy way: dark lighting, grey colors, and are totally at odds with the brighter, more colorful scenes involving Newt.
But wait! There's more! Undercutting all of this nonsense is some major teasing of the evil wizard Gellert Grindlewald, who Potter fans will remember as something of a precursor to Voldemort. While Grindlewald doesn’t play much of a part here, it's clear his role will be greatly expanded in the inevitable sequels. This means we have to deal with the whole ‘tune in next time!’ vibe that so many franchises use and abuse these days.
Needless to say, Fantastic Beasts suffers from something of an identity crisis. Is it a lighthearted, magical romp through 1920s New York? Is it a dark, depressing glimpse at prejudice and discrimination? Is it a teaser for future films in this new franchise? It tries to be all of the above and fails in every respect.
Rowling, who has in the past proved quite adept at balancing multiple plots and characters, demonstrates none of her usual talents here. The opposing tones are a jumbled mishmash and feel entirely at odds with one another. Despite her best attempts, the two main storylines: Newt’s attempts to recover his creatures and Graves’ investigations of an evil monster, feel detached and never coalesce into a satisfying whole. The mood swings treacherously back and forth between scenes of wonder and delight to moments that are utterly depressing and feel incredibly out-of-place.
Even worse, the film is overflowing with plotholes and nonsensical occurrences. Typically, Rowling does an expert job of crafting a tightly-wound story with explanations for each magical occurrence and plot point. Here though, nothing makes sense and so many instances are left unexplained or unjustified.
While many of Fantastic Beasts’ faults are due to Rowling’s mediocre script, director David Yates’ inconsistent abilities do nothing to help alleviate those shortcomings. Yates, as you may recall, directed the final four Harry Potter movies. While his debut, Order of the Phoenix, demonstrated his lack of experience with big-budget filmmaking, he came into his own as the series went on, finishing strong with the masterful Deathly Hallows. Here, Yates seems to have abandoned whatever lessons he learned from his work on Potter. His direction is uninspired and workmanlike. Additionally, the film's editing is atrocious. Editor Mark Day, who worked with Yates on the latter four Potter films demonstrates a complete lack of understanding regarding how to put scenes together in a coherent manner. There are so many points where we leap from one occurrence to another without explanation or justification. It would take far more fingers than two hands can account for to tally up the number of moments I muttered, “What the hell is happening??” in a state of utter confusion
To make matters worse, the special effects carry that awful, artificial CGI sheen. Everything looks fake, even the city. In the Potter films, CGI work and practical effects merged beautifully to create a living, breathing world. This New York looks more at home in Peter Jackson's King Kong remake. The creature design is relatively uninspired as well. There's nothing here that you haven't seen in a dozen far better movies, Harry Potter included.
Perhaps Fantastic Beasts’ greatest flaw is in its lack of interesting or memorable characters, another area Rowling usually excels in. Here, they serve hardly any function and feel as under-developed and dull as Rowling’s lackluster plotting. Newt’s character is the primary example. He spends the majority of the film stumbling around, refusing to connect to any of his human companions. He doesn’t seem very interested or invested in anything going on around him, aside from his computer-generated magical creatures. When your main character doesn’t care about anything or anyone, it makes it very difficult for the audience to get involved, and Redmayne’s awkward demeanor isn’t charming enough to hold interest or garner empathy. He’s just a weird dude who can’t connect to the people around him and it makes it very difficult to connect to him on any level, emotional or otherwise.
Truthfully, it’s difficult to connect to any of these characters. They’re about as simple-minded and surface-leveled as can be, and none of them play much of a role in the unfolding plot events – not even Newt, who’s supposedly our main character. As aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, Dan Fogler does a quality job pulling off the whole ‘everyman’ vibe, but his comic timing lacks finesse. He spends most of the time stumbling around and making silly noises to fill in the awkward silences, but aside from being a comic foil, he's never fully fleshed out.
The same goes for Waterston’s Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). As Queenie, Sudol becomes the embodiment of every NYC flapper girl cliché; her put-on accent is atrocious. Waterston fares better, but her character is about as boring as can be and she can only do so much with the underwhelming material. Not even Colin Farrell or Ezra Miller, typically fine actors, can rise above the shortcomings of Rowling’s script. Honestly, they're so detached from everything that happens, I keep forgetting they were even in this movie, hence their last-minute inclusion in this paragraph.
Fantastic Beasts ends with the promise of more to come, which, come to think of it, feels more like a threat than anything else. It is a disappointing effort in every respect, recalling the worst elements of both George Lucas’s Star Wars Prequels and Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy. I can only hope Rowling decides to jettison this lame cast of characters in favor of a more interesting one next time around. And while there’s great potential to Grindlewald’s story and his relationship with Albus Dumbledore, this mess of a movie shows no indication of it. Warner Bros may be satisfied with the piles of money this is sure to bring in, but if they want to keep fans invested, they're going to have to work just a tad bit harder to keep them coming back for more.
Until then, I'll always have Orlando...
FINAL RATING: 2/5