by Benjamín Harguindey
It is a credit to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) that it manages to be its own thing despite being ostensibly “from J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world”. Rowling herself writes the script (as well as toting a producer credit) and for what it’s worth it feels less like a fanfic than the “eighth Harry Potter book” did. No, Fantastic Beasts features nary a conciliatory reference to Hogwarts and its headmaster and instead decides to focus on a largely original, entertaining and ultimately pointless story.
Our hero is Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, bashful as ever. Scamander is a magical zoologist on a chance trip to 1926 New York, where mayhem ensues when his enchanted briefcase is misplaced and his critters break loose. He’s taken in by disgraced auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and then coerced into recapturing his fantastic beasts before their presence alerts muggles (“nomags” in US parlance) to the existence of witchcraft.
This is a very different set-up from that of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, which was largely unconcerned with the secrecy of its own fantastic world. Here wizards and muggles co-exist on a day to day basis and rampant magical creatures could expose the wizarding world and bring about its destruction (if not mankind’s). Having said that, Newt’s adventure is mostly played for laughs as he’s joined by rolly-polly nomag/comic relief Jacob (Dan Fogler) in their slapstick attempts at tracking, baiting and capturing his pets.
Tina (and her sultry sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol) inevitably end up tagging along, and to that effect we get to see just how bland our main characters are compared to their “adorable but inoffensive” chums. There isn’t much in the way of chemistry between Newt and Tina, but Jacob and Queenie are a delight to see in their little beta pairing. The animals themselves are somewhat creative, in personality if not design (most of them are just regular animals with this or that detail changed for good measure). The FX on the other hand are a bit flaky in certain scenes. To watch Eddie Redmayne fondly nuzzle the face of a creature that is obviously not there is to relive that one scene from American Sniper (2014) where Bradley Cooper puppeteers his plastic infant child.
On the subject of subplots, the movie has its fair share of padding. Nothing to dwarf The Hobbit trilogy, but there they are, Jon Voight looking way out of place as the head tycoon of a newspaper dynasty whose purpose in the film remains a mystery, and Samantha Morton running an orphanage/witch-hating cult called Second Salem, and Colin Farrell (who gets to play a deliciously hammy villain, bogged down only by confusing motivations) tracking down the source of a magical ruckus that precedes Newt’s arrival.
All of these kind of tie to one another by the end, and it is then that we realize that Fantastic Beasts is basically two movies: its main plot line being a fun safari romp, and then everything else building up obscurely but surely to what will probably be the subsequent four movies, to release over the next few years. All of which makes Newt’s adventure feel rather irrelevant by the time the credits roll. He has learned nothing nor has he changed in any meaningful way. His own plotline is an accident, and just as accidentally he stumbles into what turns out to be what the movie was “really” about.
And so Fantastic Beasts ends up feeling like a placeholder for “the first out of five movies”, in which characters and plot points are introduced and some contextual evil is temporarily dealt with. This is an immensely entertaining fantasy film in its own right, and what it leaves to be desired can hopefully be mended in the next few entries.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).