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'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' Review: Half Magic

Good news for Potter-heads, really only OK news for everyone else

November 23, 2016, 12:00 am

Say you’re JK Rowling and find yourself sitting on a property that practically prints cash. It would only make sense that you’d find it somewhat difficult to leave all that behind. Probably. At least it seems that way, what with the whole, “It’s years later and she still has stories to tell from the extended wizarding world spearheaded by none other than Harry-mother-effing-Potter” thing. And so, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is here in all of its glorious attempts to recapture the Potter magic.

We follow the hijinks of a young wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne of Les Misérables), a sort of conservationist/magic ecologist who travels the globe both searching for and educating folks about rare magical beasts and having just such a delightfully absurd yet appropriate name. For those familiar with the fiction, we can think of Newt like a sort of precursor to the beast-loving Hagrid from the original run of books and films, especially in his inability to accept that some beasts are just plain dangerous. It’s 1926 in New York City and oh, man, wouldn’t you know it—a bunch of Newt’s beasts get loose! If that wasn’t hard enough for the guy, the American magic community sure is different than the British one to which we’ve grown accustomed via Rowling’s other works. Muggles (non-magic folk) are here called “no-maj,” and it’s hard to decide if it’s insulting or just right that the American version of such a concept is the least creative descriptor of all time. Regardless, the point we’re supposed to absorb is that the plight of misunderstood magical animals is not entirely different from how the witches and wizards themselves might be regarded by the no-maj community were they exposed so, like, there’s a lesson in there about not being a jerk maybe?

Just as Newt comes to New York, a malevolent invisible force starts killing people, and our adorable little hero must join up with a disgraced magic cop named Tina (Katherine Waterston of Inherent Vice), her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a no-maj named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who just wants to open a damn bakery but is swept up in the madness. Everyone obviously blames Newt and his magic creatures, but it seems like the mysterious Graves (who is like, the vice president of magic or something and played by Colin Farrell) knows more than he’s letting on and anyway—Newt dresses in bright colors, so he can’t possibly be bad.

Potter-heads will no doubt feel excitement at the prospect of revisiting the world of Rowling’s creation, but make no mistake about the feel of Fantastic Beasts: It’s just not quite the same. Sure, it’s packed with little in-jokes, nods to characters like Dumbledore and, for some reason, Graves is carrying around a pendant shaped like the deathly hallows (either Google it or engage in the culture), but if ever there were a film that seemed more like a money grab than a worthwhile story, this is it. Rowling herself penned the screenplay, and it’s not exactly full of stirring dialog or exciting character development or even a modicum of depth.

It sure is fun, though, and with a reported four more films in the series on the way, all directed by Potter veteran David Yates, there’s still time to do better. If nothing else, the huge reveal at the end is pretty exciting (no spoilers), just don’t expect to love it unless you’re already into this stuff.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Directed by Yates
With Redmayne, Waterston, Sudol, Fogler and Farrell
Violet Crown, Regal,
PG-13,
133 min


 

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