A disjointed and confusing first half nevertheless leads to a fun conclusion with at least some of the Harry Potter magic intact.
It’s 1926. Magizoologist (that’s a fun word!) Newt Scamander steps off the boat and onto the shores of New York with a headful of messy hair(and ideas), and a brown suitcase full of secrets. Meanwhile, anti-magic rhetoric is on the rise in NYC as a group called the New-Salemers draw attention to rising incidents of witchcraft in America, causing the wizarding community to exist in secret.Making that difficult is a terrifying creature on loose, ripping up streets and buildings and causing the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA for short, if not short enough) to hold very secret, urgent meetings that people keep walking in on. Oh, and the son of a newspaper magnate is trying to impress his father by trying to get him the scoop of a lifetime – that magic is real and witches exist.
If that seems like a bit much to unpack, it is, especially in the first half. Scenes cut away jarringly, shifting in tone from the lighthearted adventures of Newt Scamander and his new friend Jacob Kowalski (fat guy gets stuck trying to enter narrow opening, ha ha) to the frankly disturbing scenes of physical and mental abuse of children involving Mary Lou Barebone (played effectively by Samantha Morton), the leader of the New-Salemers, and the grim seriousness of the MACUSA.
Since the story is completely original (The book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is actually a slim glossary of said beasts that exist in the Harry Potter universe, not a story this movie is based on), we are not familiar with these characters. Introducing them all, as well as the titular fantastic beasts and the larger HP universe leaves little room for character development. Dropping famous names and surnames from the HP books do elicit a few grins and gasps among fans, and offer emotional shortcuts (“Oh, Dumbledore liked Scamander? He MUST be a great guy”), but the fact is, these guys and girls are not the new Harry, Ron and Hermione. It’s not that they are unpleasant, it’s that usually, we don’t know enough about them to care.
A welcome exception is Jacob Kowalski, a muggle (or no-maj, as the American wizards call them), who gets caught up in Scamander’s affairs through a series of misunderstandings and coincidences.Kowalski actually has a bit of an arc and provides most of the movie’s emotional moments (the few remaining ones come from the CGI beasts), and Dan Fogler does a lovely job portraying this portly baker with a head full of dreams.
The storytelling is a bit of a mess, and suffers from not having a clear-cut antagonist. For most of the movie, Scamander and his friends are up against the ministry, who are not really bad guys. The New-Salemers are sinister, but way too ragtag to pose a serious threat. So, it’s mostly Scamander, Kowalski, Tina (a demoted auror who bumps into Scamander, literally) and her sister Queenie running around and trying to stuff the escaped beasts into Scamander’s magic bag, at least until the last twenty minutes. The creature designs are varied and fairly imaginative, and some of them are cute enough to elicit genuine emotions, especially a stick like creature with “attachment issues” who seems to live under Scamander’s collar. Although mostly CGI, they are well done.
Speaking of CGI, holy crap is there a lot of it. Every few minutes something is swooping, soaring, smashing, lashing, glowing or growing. The action sequences are hyper-kinetic and frankly, a little difficult to follow, especially during the climax. However, the story feels less chopped-up as the film progresses, and comes together well in the end. Some of the performances are on point, especially Dan Fogler and Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, Mary Lou’s abused, adopted child. Eddie Raymond as Scamander is charming, awkward and handsome, and little else, but neither him nor Katherine Waterston as the female lead have much depth. It doesn’t help that there’s very little chemistry there. In fact, Jacob and Queenie are by far the more adorable pair, and provide the best character moments, especially in the final minutes. Among others, Carmen Ejogo is the President (of what, it’s not clear, although my guess is weird hairpieces) who gives very serious speeches, Colin Farrell once again plays a stoic hardass with creepy undertones (it’s amazing how he plays even the good guys that way) and Jon Voight is in the movie.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a strange movie. As is obvious from the review, there’s a lot to nitpick and complain about. The story is disjointed, the characters lack depth and it would have benefited from a more villainous presence. However, I came out of the cinema hall having had a good time. I was entertained. Confused, momentarily, but rarely bored. It’s definitely a movie worth a watch, although being a Harry Potter fan certainly won’t hurt.
Just ignore the Jon Voight and sons subplot. The movie definitely did.