Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the new puppy you’ve not yet house-trained: It’s cute, it’s endearing, you want to scratch it behind its ears, but it has a habit of leaving messes on the floor and so you also want to bop it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper. But you can’t bring yourself to do it. The little mutt’s just too adorable. Grant that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will not stain your carpet, chew your couch, or create general havoc in your home. Grant instead that it overstays its welcome and in fits and spurts refuses to just be a movie in the same way the average franchise movie refuses to be a movie: by setting itself up for the next installment.
Franchising isn’t a new thing, but of late it has gotten worse in the sense that movies are becoming more conscious of their serialization. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that dynamic splits the production into two parts: one concerning fantastic beasts and, yes, the appropriate methods of finding them, the other concerning Standard Issue Dark Wizard Shit™, the latter of which is all the proof you need of the film’s intrinsic taint prior to buying a ticket. Remember that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is derived from the Harry Potter universe, where it’s nothing more than a required textbook for all first-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, rather than a distinct story of its own. Just turning that text into narrative requires major storytelling gymnastics.
Stitching it to the Potterverse’s overarching clashes with the baddest hombres of the wizarding world, though, requires something more, like an insatiable hunger for box office revenue. It’d be a crime of sorts to turn Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a hapless, shy, gratingly twitchy wizard who accidentally sets a handful of magical creatures loose in 1920s New York City, and who must catch ’em all before things get out of hand. (The Pokémon GO tie-in jokes are as obvious as they are endless. Unlike that game, though, the film actually has a conclusion, such as it is.) But that’d be more of a misdemeanor than a felony. By contrast, portentous material involving a spate of unexplained and destructive attacks throughout the city, coupled with the search for the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, feels like murder.
That’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in a nutshell. The film begins with a newspaper clipping montage to spell out Grindelwald’s infamy and emphasize his disappearance before swapping over to Newt’s arrival in America, which feels like a play on John Crowley’s Brooklyn, sans the charm and presence of Saoirse Ronan, plus Redmayne’s overeager artifice and a surplus of CGI FX. Newt’s suitcase is magical in nature, and contains a veritable ark of magnificent, strange and otherworldly animals collected from all over the world. Some, like the niffler, a platypus-like critter with kleptomaniacal tendencies, are cute. Some, like the graphorn, are less so but still enthralling to behold. It’s Newt’s desire to learn about these animals and protect them, and perhaps it’s not much of a surprise that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them works best in that particular capacity: In Newt’s menagerie we find components of the wonder that made Harry Potter such a success on the page and on screen.
Part of that wonder stems from Redmayne’s supporting cast members, especially Dan Fogler, who plays a No-Maj named Jacob. (“No-Maj” is the American term for “non-magic user.” Like “muggle,” but much more nitwitted.) Fogler is the audience anchor character, the person whose befuddled awe we’re meant to identify with. He’s also utterly delightful to watch, defining Jacob as a genuinely good-hearted and sweet man driven by small but deeply personal ambitions. (He wants to open a bakery and quit his dead-end cannery job. Turns out you don’t need a Dementor to suck out a chap’s soul.) Alongside Fogler there’s Katherine Waterston as Porpentina Goldstein, a disgraced Auror (basically a wizard police officer who specializes in dealing with dark wizards), and her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who reads minds and bakes a mean strudel. The quartet gels together splendidly, so naturally the script contrives to separate them as often as possible.
A pity. By now you may have caught onto Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s greatest weakness: There’s a lot of plot to get through here, including the bits about a religious group called the Second Salemers, who believe witches exist and must be put to death, and the bits about MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States of America, led by the stately Carmen Ejogo and the sketchy-as-hell Colin Farrell, who believe that Newt is responsible for the devastation peppering New York City. (See what we mean? Plot.) It’s a symptom of modern franchise filmmaking that each chapter in a franchise comes overloaded with “stuff,” but seeing that quirk manifest in a Harry Potter movie is especially puzzling. Harry Potter yarns are balancing acts. They stand alone while contributing toward the buildup of a greater conflict. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn’t manage this feat, and is more of a slog for it.
J.K. Rowling herself authored Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s screenplay, but you might not realize it for its unwieldiness. It’s such a fan-fictiony piece of business that one might assume she wrote the damn thing under Paul Sheldon/Misery levels of duress, which leaves little to no excuse for the failures of David Yates, directing his second picture in 2016 following the execrable The Legend of Tarzan. Maybe garbage in is garbage out, but it’s remarkable how similar that film feels to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: They’re both inexcusably slack, they both star uncompelling leading men, they both needed more polish on their FX work, and they’re both creatively stunted. What makes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them so frustrating, though, is that it has imagination. It’s just hopelessly diluted.
For everything that works in the film, there are two things that don’t, and those things all tie back to how laborious it must be to lay the foundation for the next four films in the series. (Yes, four.) For unrepentant Harry Potter geeks, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be like magical catnip. Everyone else may just wish Yates and Rowling had let Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them be its own beast.
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman
Release Date: Nov. 18, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.