90. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

As you all probably know, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the new attempt at extending J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.  Serving as a prequel to the Potter saga, Fantastic Beasts brings back long-time Potter director David Yates and introduces the Academy Award-winning Eddie Redmayne (Best Actor in a Leading Role, 2015, The Theory of Everything) into the American chapter of the magical universe.

It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of something as beloved and successful as the Harry Potter saga.  With a film the likes of Fantastic Beasts, fan expectations are high as they look to be sucked back into the world with which they are familiar, yet something new is necessary in order to feel like the new property is anything other than a cheap copy of the first.  Hence, the move to America and the focus on older characters.

There’s no question that Fantastic Beasts doesn’t feel like the Potter stories.  Those original tales typically radiated an exuberance that’s missing, here.  However, one characteristic is similar to the Potter films (at least the latter ones), and it’s not one of the good ones.  The color palette, as in the darker Potter films that Yates also directed, is drab and dank.  This is in direct contrast to the magical word that these characters inhabit and plays a significant role in dragging the film down and sucking the fun out of it.

Playing another role in that dubious achievement is the score by James Newton Howard.  Lacking any energy throughout the majority of the picture, Howard’s music attempts to soothe the viewer into a coma, even during scenes that seem to be geared towards action.  In no way is the score poorly written or comprised of “bad” music; it simply fails to accomplish the goal of elevating the film and sending the message that the events playing out on-screen are relevant and exciting.  It’s a rare – perhaps even the only – misstep from the legendary composer.

For a film that literally touts how amazing its creatures are, right there in its own title, the character design of the Big Bad is remarkably devoid of any imagination.  In fact, not once during the entire film was I truly in awe of any of the visuals that were unfolding on the screen, which is a shame because I know the visual effects artists work hard and just do what they’re told.  But the villain’s design is not only cosmetically mundane, but its functionality is limited, resulting in a similarly humdrum “action” climax.

The cast is a strong one, but their performances are crafted to match the rest of the film: understated and largely forgettable.  I can’t say for certain, but I feel comfortable speculating that this was due to Yates’s direction and not their own professional choices.  As with Howard’s score, no one does a “bad” job.  Everyone is perfectly serviceable.  But the charisma and charm so joyously found in Harry, his pals, and his authority figures is almost entirely absent from the entire cavalcade of characters in Fantastic Beasts.

Only at the tail end of the film, following the climactic battle, do we get any semblance of true feeling and personality from the people with which we just spent two hours.  And, honestly, these final minutes somewhat redeem everything that comes before them.  The cast shines.  They truly emote.  We see that they feel for each other and, as a result, we can finally feel for them.  Why it takes so long to get to this point is something I suspect I’ll never fully understand.  Before these moments, the characters are simply there to deliver their lines and move the (rather thin) story to its next waystation.  They’re the writing utensil in a Connect-the-Dots activity, and they deserve better material than that.

It seems like J.K. Rowling and David Yates forget what made Harry’s story so special, beloved, and successful.  The magic in those books and movies was never found in the creatures or spells.  All of those were lifted from previous stories, fables, and legends, anyway.  The true magic was in the characters, the stories, and the mythology.  In Fantastic Beasts, we get almost none of that, as one magical creature after another is paraded out to little fanfare, a villain is halfheartedly developed on the side, and the heroes go through the motions of setting all aright, all while quoting laws and bureaucracy, rather than displaying any sort of personal investment in any of the proceedings.  Without that personal investment from them, there is no personal investment from the audience.  And that personal investment is what made Rowling’s original stories into the cherished parables that they are, today.

Rather than aspiring to make a connection with its audience, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sleepy little movie that settles and coasts on the reputation of its predecessor, counting on the goodwill earned by Potter to get fans back into theaters, but doing little to transition Potter fans into Newt Scamander fans or to convert the uninitiated into a brand new fandom.  It’s a lazy film that manages to squeak out about five minutes of hope for the future at the very end.  However, I have to wonder how much more the future has in store for this property.  A total of five films are planned, but . . . well, we’ll see.  In the meantime, if you want true magic at the movies, there’s still currently one place you can find it.

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