"Fantastic Beasts" A Minor Success With Major Problems

Was a “Harry Potter” prequel ever really going recapture that old Hogwarts magic? Based on a 2001 J.K. Rowling compendium spun off from her original Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone novel, “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” returns filmmaker David Yates, director of the last four Potter films. It’s a hire presumably in the name of consistency, as Yates has proved less than ideal in the way of blood-pumping blockbusters (see this year’s “The Legend Of Tarzan,” or better yet, don’t). Predictably, the results are mixed. Although the 1920s-set movie is visually striking, its creatures most certainly fantastic, gone is the sense of sweep and discovery from the series at the height of its powers, in its place a suffocating sense of duty over inspiration.

As Yates halfheartedly shepherds “Beasts” towards its inevitable sequels (which he’ll also direct), there’s only one real surprise: that the screenplay, by Rowling herself, is the weakest link. The author’s overreliance on coincidence mucks up the typical interconnectedness of her stories, resulting in a would-be franchise starter that’s the one thing it mustn’t be: slapdash.

Talented but divisive Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory Of Everything”) stars as magizoologist Newt Scamander, a scrawny redheaded wizard committed to the conservation of magical creatures, no matter how dangerous. The film opens with the kooky Briton traveling to New York City with a magical suitcase full of creatures, intent on delivering one in particular to the wilds of Arizona. But a luggage mix-up with a down-on-his-luck Muggle (American English: No-Maj) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) leads Newt down a rabbit hole of beast-induced bedlam.

With a handful of his creatures wreaking havoc on the Big Apple, Newt lucks into the help of several American witches: Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an undervalued Magical Congress office worker, and her flamboyant younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Along with Jacob, the group tracks Newt’s beasts while a prickly Congress officer, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), tracks them. It makes for a chase movie creature feature hybrid that chugs along nicely for a while, peaking with a trip in the enchanting land of Newt’s suitcase.

But the picture’s main conflict proves quite a tangent – and no fun at all. It comes in the form of an abusive No-Maj (Samantha Morton) and her two adopted children (Ezra Miller and Faith Wood-Blagrove), the three of them ultimately comprising a dark, sloppy B-story that obnoxiously overtakes Newt’s A-story. Halfway through, Newt and company become ungainfully wrapped up in this sideshow and the movie succumbs to the worst elements of franchise building. A simultaneously forward and backward-thinking cameo ends things on an exceptionally sour note, trying desperately but failing miserably to generate momentum for “Fantastic Beasts 2.”

The performances are nearly as shaky as the screenplay. Redmayne’s detractors have long accused the actor of a smug screen presence and a penchant for overacting. Those weaknesses are very much present in his Newt Scamander, but they’re not untrue to Rowling’s vision for the character. The same goes for Fogler, whose bumbling everyman seems tailor-made for his limited comic sensibilities. Waterston acquits herself better, but her turn is a far cry from the star-making performance she dealt in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” And Ezra Miller’s character is a flat-out nightmare in both concept and execution – not to mention his haircut.

Colin Farrell is a relative highlight, with the actor continuing to age like a particularly opulent wine – which makes the film’s misuse of him all the more infuriating. The same goes for Carmen Ejogo, who gets a couple blink-or-you’ll-miss-it scenes as the Magical Congress’ president. But at least she’s given the respect of a proper send-off, presumably ready to fight again another day.

The gorgeous set design and eye-catching beasts are nearly enough to make us forget that David Yates is not a very exciting director with little talent for enriching Rowling’s writing. Here he actually makes it worse, leaning into her wooden dialogue and creaky plotting, stringently married to her screenplay as if legally obligated. (This might not be far from the truth.) The actors do their best to cut through Yates’ and Rowling’s clutter, occasionally dovetailing with some truly wondrous visuals that are ultimately worth the price of admission.

“Fantastic Beasts” won’t convert anyone to the Potterverse, delivering but a dusting of that late 1990s, early 2000s alchemy. But it won’t dissuade anyone, either. As unnecessary prequels go, it’s a passable journey with just enough splendor to keep kids and adults in the J.K. Rowling fold, even if few will be left breathless for future adventures of Newt Scamander and his supernatural suitcase. Fantastic it’s not, but fair to middling – and occasionally a bit more.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 18, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Faith Wood-Blagrove
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some fantasy action violence)