After eight successful Harry Potter films that raked a combined total of US$7.7 billion at the worldwide box office over the course of ten years, it is just a matter of time before Warner Bros. decided to adapt another J.K. Rowling’s literary work into a potential cash cow and a franchise starter. The result is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which sees the renowned British author herself contribute the movie screenplay for the very first time with Harry Potter vet David Yates returning to direct the all-new fantasy blockbuster set within the Harry Potter universe.
Set 70 years before the events of Harry Potter’s adventure, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them revolves around a magizoologist named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who arrives in the 1920s New York City to protect magical creatures that he collects in his seemingly ordinary but larger-than-life leather suitcase. Trouble arises when a portly baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) unknowingly switches briefcases with Newt on the street and let loose some of Newt’s creatures that end up wreaking havoc in the city. Soon, Newt finds himself drawn into the conflicts of the wizarding world as he joins forces with Tina (Katherine Waterston), a security officer with the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) on a mission to recover Newt’s missing creatures.
On paper, the collaboration between Rowling and Yates sure sounds like a successful magic spell in the making. But on screen, the movie doesn’t really gel together into a coherent whole to sustain the lengthy 133-minute runtime.
Anyway, here’s what worked in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For a starter, you gotta give credit to Rowling’s imaginative mind for her world-building potential that stretches beyond the wizarding world of Hogwarts. Not to mention it is a refreshing change of pace to see the 1920s jazz era of New York City served as the movie’s major backdrop.
Best of all, Rowling’s rich gallery of magical creatures that appeared out of Newt’s inventory-like suitcase is nothing short of fantastic. From a sneaky rodent-like beast Niffler, who likes to treasure-hunt on all things shiny to a little green twig lock-picking expert Bowtruckle and a giant phoenix-like Thunderbird nicknamed Frank, every creature design is wonderfully realised by the special effects team. Some of these magical creatures’ appearances are also part of the reasons that give the movie a generous dose of fun and vigour.
The cast, in the meantime, is a mixed bag. Although Eddie Redmayne has that appropriately geeky look to play the lead protagonist as Newt Scamander, he doesn’t get to do much other than appearing strictly shy and socially awkward the whole time. Even his facial expression tends to look the same, regardless of whether he’s having fun interacting with his magical creatures or facing trouble with an enemy.
Dan Fogler fares better as the movie’s comic relief, Jacob Kowalski and also shares a wonderful chemistry with Alison Sudol as Tina’s sister, Queenie. Speaking of Tina, Katherine Waterston is adequate enough for her role. Colin Farrell looks the part as the shady and remorseless MACUSA’s head agent Percival Graves, while Ezra Miller is perfectly cast as the tormented Credence. Finally, Samantha Morton’s dark turn as the no-nonsense leader of the anti-wizard group Mary Lou Barebone delivers a spot-on performance but it’s a shame to see a screen veteran like Jon Voight being relegated to a thankless role.
As for David Yates, his direction is erratic and tends to drag the pace to a near standstill whenever there is no scene involving magic or anything that resembled fantastical elements. Despite Rowling’s aforementioned world-building potential, her attempt to balance the storyline between the lighthearted and dark moments is spotty in places.
Unlike the Harry Potter saga, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them lack a worthy antagonist. Not even the occasional presence of a deadly ominous cloud that wreaks the city and sucks the life out of its victim feels particularly threatening. With no genuine stakes at all in this movie, it comes as no surprise that the ending feels anticlimactic.
Given the haphazard approach in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, does this movie really needs another four more movies as planned by the studio? Only time will tell if the sequel gets made and able to improve better.