Maybe J.K. Rowling should stick to orphans.
That was the first thought that popped into my head as I watched Harry Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Fantastic Beasts has all the hallmarks of the earlier series. There’s sumptuous direction from Potter stalwart David Yates. The screenplay was written by series creator J.K. Rowling herself and is based on a textbook that’s part of Potter lore.
But slender hero Newt Scamander is no Harry Potter. Even at age 11, the battle-scarred Hogwarts student pulled us in with his drive and determination. Contrast that to the magizoologist of Fantastic Beasts, who steps off a steamer boat into the New York City of 1926.
Eddie Redmayne plays this Doctor Doolittle of magical creatures, who wanders around Manhattan with his suitcase of beasties, only to stumble into a crisis involving the Magical Congress of the United States of America.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to Scamander. Oscar-winner Redmayne is a technically skilled actor who commits himself bodily to a role, but here we only get a slender sketch: a mop of red hair, a sense of earnestness and a perpetually stunned expression.
Straight away, Rowling throws us into a dense thicket of plot points. The wizard community is worried about persecution from the no-maj (non-magical Americans, a.k.a. muggles). Security officer Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is pushing for a more aggressive stance.
Meanwhile, on the streets, a no-maj named Mary Lou Barebone is organizing rallies and calling for a New Salem. She’s even got her own group of young acolytes that look like extras from Children of the Corn — including a particularly gothic-looking Ezra Miller.
Shortly after Scamander gets his first glimpse of the New Salem types, he bumps into Jacob Kowalski. The regular Joe, who is trying to open a bakery, just happens to be carrying the same (looking) suitcase as Scamander. Sooner than you can say “awfully convenient,” the cases are switched and the magical menagerie of critters escapes.
Hackneyed? Yes, but it’s also a blessing, because Dan Fogler’s Kowalski is the first flesh and blood character we encounter. He’s a stout-hearted New Yorker, who adapts to the world of wizards with surprising vigour.
Things really start to sparkle when the two men are forced to hide out in a boarding house and meet Queenie (Alison Sudol), a flapper-styled gal who sounds like Harley Quinn’s ancestor. With a face that beams like Betty Boop, Queenie — a telepath — looks into Kowalski’s mind and melts.
A supernatural scavenger hunt
Much has been made of the now-prescient themes of intolerance woven into this American tale. But, really, Fantastic Beasts devotes much more time to the supernatural scavenger hunt, as Scamander and company try to round up a catalogue of computer-animated creations.
Because of this, Fantastic Beasts feels like a missed opportunity for Rowling. The grim setting of New York in the ’20s, with the Great Depression looming, is an excellent start for a story about how differences divide us.
Given the chance for something richer, however, Rowling falls back on what she knows: remarkable beasts and a diverting treasure hunt. The darkness Yates was so adept at capturing in the earlier series is squandered in this film filled with evil clouds, gangster goblins and a coin-gobbling Niffler.
While there are flashes of wonder and whimsy, there seems little in these characters that would support an ambitious, five-part franchise. Surely, future instalments will explain the reason for the haunted look in Scamander’s eyes.
Until then, I say kick him to the curb and give us The Further Adventures of Queenie and Jacob’s Amazing Doughnuts.
RATING: 3 out of 5 stars