There’s no such thing as a “sure thing.” If there was, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them–the big screen adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s spin-off novel from the Harry Potter series–would have been an easy success. Released in the same month, a trailer for Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson set YouTube viewer records. Why? Fans of Potter can’t get enough, they’ll never get enough, and that means anything related to Hogwarts is prime territory to exploit, including its actors.
So why should Fantastic Beasts work? It’s a story written by Rowling. It’s in the same universe as her past successes (or is it?). It’s about fantasy beasts (or is it?). Fantastic Beasts follows a Dr. Doolittle-inspired wizard named Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), who is in 1920s New York City hunting a new beast to protect for his unique version of a magical zoo. He keeps these beasts in a suitcase, which is either bigger on the inside (sounds familiar?) or it somehow serves as a portal to a wider world where Scamander can protect the beasts from those that don’t fancy beastie types. If the beasts remained the focus of the story, a journey where we met several of these creatures and explored the awe and majesty of these brilliant creations from the visual effects artists, liked the klepto duck-billed platypus or the Groot-like Bowtruckle–or maybe actually explore where in the world to find them as the title says–Fantastic Beasts could have been what fans are looking for. Unfortunately the story doesn’t know what it wants to be and instead gets bogged down in a dark and gloomy drama about a troubled, victimized orphan of the Anakin Skywalker variety.
A glimmer of heart can be found in a hapless wannabe baker named Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, and a woman from the magical world named Queenie, played by Alison Sudol. You could edit out every scene these two characters are not in and be left with a compelling story. Their acting, the characterization, and chemistry is the stuff of a good romance movie. Their performances are also the only strong ties in the film to a believable 1920s setting–both, with their accents and mannerisms, seem to fall out of a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, despite art direction that never quite gives the feel we’re in the Roaring ’20s.
It’s the first star vehicle for Katherine Waterston, daughter of Law & Order actor Sam Waterston. She plays a rejected, former auror for MACUSA, a sort of FBI for the magic world. Unfortunately the character is uninspired and unoriginal, so it’s clear Waterston had little to work with to make the role stand out. Redmayne seems to be trying out for Matt Smith’s Doctor Who role but portrays only the awkwardness well without the glee and whimsy. Where the film tries to pull in known supporting actor quantities, they arrived at Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Jon Voight, all as uninteresting archetypes of bad guys. Only in the end do we get a too-late glimmer of hope with a scene you could compare to Mark Hamill’s brief appearance in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Director David Yates doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the awe and wonder he should have been able to highlight from the material, leaving the narrative sprawling much like the last four Harry Potter films, which he also directed. Does the core problem reside with Rowling setting the magical world in the States instead of England? Her focus on a bigoted New York in a broader, general way versus the more intimate manner Harry experienced bigotry with his foster family? The lack of charisma of the entire cast except Sudol and Fogler? The false advertising of the title setting an expectation that the story would be about something it wasn’t? The perspective of the entire film from the adult characters instead of, as with Harry Potter, from the kids? No doubt thousands of parents took their little ones to this film over the holiday weekend expecting a story that would appeal to kids. Other than the rare scenes with the beautifully realized beasts, the young audience likely left the theater confused and asking questions about a plot centered on parental abuse.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t the worst movie of the year, and is not really that bad of a film as a whole. But with the pedigree of Rowling and the Harry Potter universe, it only reached for the least of the Harry Potter movies and came far short of approaching the best. Harry Potter fans–who bought and read seven novels and paid to see eight movies already–simply deserve a higher calibre story and a better realized picture. With four Fantastic Beasts sequels planned, the studio needs to start over with a clean slate, a more appealing narrative and characters are needed from Rowling, and a new cast (except Sudol and Fogler) and director is a must. The fantastic beasts? They can stay.