A viewing of Harry Potter’s spinoff brother,“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” will likely leave audiences loyal to J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world mildly hungry for a Potter binge-watching/reading session. That was my immediate response after departing this long, uncertain cinematic outing with Rowling on her own in the writer’s chair and David Yates’s at the director’s wheel a fifth time.
Not even the wizarding world is immune to Hollywood’s prequel-sequel-spinoff fever. Harry came from published, established stories overall masterfully translated into eight films. “Fantastic Beasts” is a similar beast, if you will, but … it lacks those previously founded footnotes that Harry’s story had.
Of course, the film’s only source material is a green-covered guide Rowling wrote back in 2001 to correspond with the creatures featured throughout the Potter series. It contains no narrative, just facts, and references helpful in identifying the 85 different species of “Fantastic Beasts,” including the digital menagerie unfolding from the bottomless suitcase of Newt Scamander (a delightfully quirky Eddie Reyman).
Allow me one disclaimer: I’m a devotee to Rowling’s Potter-verse. I was skeptical of this film from its inception, but otherwise just as anxious to be back in the embrace of the spells, wands, and wizardry fashion I’ve loved since youth.
My consensus? The magic’s definitely present. The pacing’s priorities, on the other hand, need nurturing if this spinoff series hopes to be equally as effective as Potter’s.
The film opens with a lovely theme from James Newton Howard that blends elements of John Williams’s “Hedwig’s Theme” with signature extracts of darkness heard in Alexandre Desplat’s “Deathly Hallows” scores. Set in 1920’s New York City, we’re about 70 years pre-Potter.
Mr. Scamander is fresh off a ship from Britain with a magical zoo’s worth of “Fantastic Beasts” in his Mary Poppins-esque carry-on. En route to Arizona to free one particular beast, his journey halts in New York when he encounters “No-Maj” (the American equivalent to muggle) Jacob Kowalski (a charming Dan Fogler) and dismissed Auror Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, more on her later).
When it comes to creating powerful, narrative depth, Rowling is a literary genius. She tries to capture that same nuance as a screenwriter by constructing dazzling dimensions within the pockets of realism. Potter fans will most likely sense a pattern in her technique. Consider her three main characters: Newt, a lanky wizard with crazy hair; Tina, a witch trying to redeem herself; and Jacob, the accidental comic relief with a fancy for sweets. Sound familiar?
Waterson’s Tina is a misfortunate miscast. I waited for her to surprise me or make me interested in what her character offered because not all her actions are one-dimensionally driven. Even on paper in the screenplay, she needs some definition. At the moment, she’s just a sketch, not the full render of female heroism we know Rowling is capable of producing.
Not twice but four times did I anticipate the film’s end. The multiple layers of plot are so rich in concept, it seemed almost impossible to introduce, let alone develop, all of them. Remember, Rowling’s an author, and “Fantastic Beasts” as a full-fledged hardcover book would have been absolutely magical.
For now, you can purchase a hardcover copy of the screenplay, which I highly recommend, because there’s so much more room in a book for dead ends and drawn out revelations. Clocking in at two hours and 13 minutes, the film feels out of touch with its own pacing and priorities. Too much character growth is sacrificed for the sake of shaky shots of the Obscurus – the real meat of this story – flying around like a Death Eater.
We’re here for the fantastic beasts, and they are quite so. Here’s my thing about the special effects: I don’t feel like I’m watching believable creatures, and yes, I know they are supposed to be magical.
However, these fantastic beasts are a product of a computer, and it shows. Their expressions of humanity save them and keep us engaged in the middle of the surrounding magical and non-magical humans. The sequences with the Obscurus also provide that powerful force needed to satisfy the final showdown.
The majority of Potter’s original creative team is on board, and thank goodness; They know this intellectual property like the back of their broomsticks. Though Yates is responsible for the mounting seriousness in the last five Potter’s, I’m still holding out for the return of “Prisoner of Azkaban’s” Alfonso Corin. Hey, if we’re getting four more rounds of “Fantastic Beasts,” I don’t think that’s too tall an order.