Movie Review: “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton
David Yates

J.K. Rowling dreamed up the entire Harry Potterverse, and there isn’t a person on the planet who understands these characters better than she does. She has probably written a back story for Mrs. Norris the cat. However, when it comes to the much-anticipated “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” she is making her screenwriting debut, and it is clear that she still has much to learn about writing a script versus writing a novel. What made the film adaptations of her Potter books so successful was that she packed her stories to the gills with details and allowed an experienced screenwriter (usually Steve Kloves, who is an executive producer here) to pare them down, making them leaner and better. Rowling does not appear to have written a novel of “Fantastic Beasts” that she could then dissect like Kloves did her books. In retrospect, that feels like a mistake.

Seventy years before Harry Potter’s story begins, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is wandering the streets of New York City with a suitcase full of trouble. (Think of it as a zoo inside a suitcase-shaped TARDIS.) When one of the suitcase’s inhabitants escapes in a bank, Newt inadvertently picks up someone else’s suitcase, causing aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to bring home, and subsequently release, several of Newt’s magical creatures. This comes at a time when the city is already dealing with a dark force that is scaring the muggle population (or ‘no-maj,’ as they’re known in America), which has given birth to a witch hunt movement by a group calling themselves the New Salemers. Newt needs help, and he gains some at-first reluctant assistance from Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a federal agent of magic, and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).

Here’s the crazy thing: that plot synopsis leaves out two huge components to the story, and yet the film still feels like it was underwritten. We learn next to nothing about anyone in the film, aside from the fact that Newt was once in love with someone whose family plays a large role in the events that take place 70 years later. We do learn, though, that the death penalty for witches and wizards is cruel and unusual punishment. You’d think that a simple killing curse, done with proper oversight, would be sufficient, but no.

The fact that the story revolves around the ‘switched suitcase’ trope is, frankly, depressing. Rowling is an experienced enough storyteller that she can come up with something better than this…right? (Let us also state for the record that the last film to effectively execute the suitcase trick is “True Romance.”) Worse, the switched suitcase aspect of the story winds up being the ‘B’ story in the plot, with the ‘A’ story being the dark menace terrorizing the city. The fantastic beasts, it turns out, are mainly a distraction.

Those beasts are indeed fantastic, though. The niffler (kleptomaniac platypus) is too cute for words, and the bird/snake hybrid makes for an improbable but entertaining battle sequence. But who is the audience supposed to care about more: the animals or the people? People watching a movie want to care about the peoplein the movie, but the people in this movie are clearly second fiddle to the non-people. To add insult to injury, the story takes a turn dangerously close to X-Men territory, of which we will say no more. Also, and it pains me to say this, but with each film, Redmayne looks more and more like someone who got lucky with one performance (his Oscar-winning turn in “The Theory of Everything”). His work since then (“Jupiter Ascending,” “The Danish Girl” and this) has been far less impressive.

With any luck, aforementioned executive producer Steve Kloves will assist Rowling in assembling the script for the sequel to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (already greenlit and scheduled for release in two years), and with one film under this series’ belt, they will right the wrongs that Rowling committed here. Who knows, maybe Kloves deliberately maintained a hands-off approach to the writing of the story with this installment, just so Rowling can learn the hard way that writing for the page is much, much different than writing for the screen.