If you’re a fan of J.K. Rowling’s pseudo-occult oeuvre, there will be plenty to enjoy in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Even if you’re not a Potter partisan, you probably won’t find it altogether beastly — although it’s certainly never quite fantastic. The film suffers noticeably from the postmodern plague of excessive franchise building, but it’s quickly paced (if not exactly lean in the running-time department) and engaging throughout. That being said, the film leans far too heavily on its shared-universe origins to do anything of genuine interest with story or character, leaving a final product that’s just more of the same. For many, that familiarity will be enough to warrant a watch. To the more critical eye, it begins to look like complacency.
If Beasts makes no revolutionary contributions to Rowling’s Wizarding World, it at least recaptures the magic of prior Potter pictures with admirably adequate competency. In fact, “admirably adequate” may be the best two-word description I can muster for this film. It hits all the right notes, and does so better than some of its tangentially related predecessors. Where this approach falls short is in characterization. While the Potter franchise benefited from a built-in audience of devoted fans with well-established relationships with the characters being depicted on-screen, Beasts is confronted with the unenviable task of not just franchise-building, but world-building. Because the film feels so front-loaded with establishing its narrative context for future films, its characters are presented as little more than a collection of abstruse motivations and pantomimic traits in the absence of any depth or emotional resonance.
That said, the film is a remarkable visual and technological achievement. Director David Yates has expanded his pallet since he helmed the last Potter film five years ago, but that pallet still consists predominantly of computer-crafted cinema. The period 1920s New York setting is proficiently realized, the creatures all look incredible and the 3-D works especially well in scenes of the wizards’ reality-warping wand-wielding. But cinematic spectacle will only go so far, and the story doesn’t quite pack the emotional stakes to sustain interest for more than two hours. Also, it doesn’t look anywhere near as cool as Doctor Strange.
Rowling’s writing bears all the regrettable earmarks of rote redundancy that distinguish the work of a scribe who would rather move on to greener creative pastures if only obsessive audiences and cash-hungry agents would allow it. (I’ve heard her detective novels are pretty good.) Newt Scamander is just a bit too milquetoast as a character to reasonably carry multiple films — at least four more are already planned — and his tangentially referenced backstory sounds far more interesting than the past-present-tense one on display here. Eddie Redmayne does his best to bring Scamander to life through bizarre affectations of body language that at least impart a visual distinction to the character, and Colin Farrell struggles valiantly with what amounts to little more than the rough outline of a villainous role, but their strong performances aren’t enough to overcome what can be generously described as a problematic script.
Beasts may well fail to find solid footing, but for devotees of its literary antecedents it will more than suffice. One gets the distinct sense that impressive things might someday turn up in this film’s successors, but who rationally wants to blow a couple of hours on what may amount to an empty promise? Potter completists may find the magic here — and there are worse films out this week — so I’m sure a lot of people have already seen and enjoyed this film. But I feel similarly certain that many others wish they could be “obliviated.” Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Grail Moviehouse, Regal Biltmore Grande, UA Beaucathcer, Epic of Hendersonville.