Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Note: Most of my movie reviews are intended for readers of the adapted source material. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while sharing its title with a short, mock-textbook companion piece to the Harry Potter series, cannot honestly be said to be an adaptation of anything, so much as a screen-original spinoff. Even so, as an attempted extension of the Potter-verse, I count it worthy of a reader’s perspective review.
English wizard naturalist, Newt Scamander, is illegally carrying a case of magical creatures in 1920s New York when they inevitably escape, requiring the help of Tina, a disgraced local Auror, her Legilimens sister, Queenie, and Jacob, a muggle who happened to be in the way, to recover them. Also there’s some growing anti-magic sentiment stateside, and some havoc being wrought by repressed magic as a result.
One or two jokes land, and both the magical creatures and the flirtation between Jacob and Queenie occasionally border on cute.
In spite of J.K. Rowling’s sole writing credit, there’s hardly a glimmer of her usual spark here, none of her signature whimsy, humor, terror, adventure, or deep friendships to be found. The characters are flat, their relationships largely forced, their motivations fickle and underexplained. The importance and urgency of both containing the creature infestation and keeping muggles out of the loop are subject to change at the drop of a hat, and the wonder of the magical world is shown only through often destructive scenes of creature spectacle, divorced from character and plot. The effect is less a curious desire to be a part of magic and more a questioning of whether the muggles are so wrong to fear and resent it.
The plot is beyond slight, or rather, both plots are. Newt’s search for his creatures and the unrest between the magical and non-magical communities barely intersect, except for a brief scene in which our heroes are abruptly condemned to death by corrupt officials and just as abruptly forgotten about and apparently pardoned immediately after escaping the execution chamber. When it comes time for the finale and its potentially city-ending stakes (born of the non-Newt plotline), the task of saving the day falls to local magical law enforcement, while Newt and company contribute nothing but reaction shots, getting beaten up, a little bit of “I told you so,” and a poorly foreshadowed memory-alteration-by-creature.
The ten second glimpse of the dark wizard Grindelwald at the end gives a by then unwelcome reminder that this is only the first installment of a spinoff series, an idea made all the more clearly inadvisable by this failed attempt to stretch the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them concept into even one movie’s worth of story.
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