There’s some magic in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” but it’s all courtesy of the special effects and design departments.
Dramatically speaking, this attempt to expand the “Harry Potter” franchise is stillborn. Not even the usually screen-dominating Eddie Redmayne can give it a compelling head or heart.
Based on an original screenplay by “Potter” creator J.K. Rowling (who also produced this film), “Fantastic Beasts. . .” is a prequel unfolding in the 1920s. This setting gives the set and costume designers plenty to play with, and their vision of Jazz Age New York City — and the parallel wizarding world that coexists with it — is rich and evocative.
Would that the same could be said for the story and characters.
Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a British wizard who comes to the Big Apple with a small suitcase filled with fantastic creatures. Eventually we learn that he’s a sort of Marlon Perkins on a mission to preserve magical species on the verge of extinction. Much of the film consists of chase scenes in which Newt tries to recapture escapees from his luggage.
The first one, involving a platypus-like creature that gobbles up jewelry and precious metals, is mildly amusing. Things go downhill from there.
Newt finds that America’s wizarding world is in crisis. The Magical Congress of the U.S.A., the governing institution, has been fighting a losing battle to keep wizardry a secret from the Muggles (only the Yanks call them No-Mags. . . as in “no magic”). But their cover is being blown by the depredations of some sort of malevolent magical creature that is leveling entire blocks of Manhattan.
Newt’s guide through North American wizardry is Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a sort of bob-coiffed lady detective who has taken it upon herself to police these mysterious happenings.
And he unwittingly gets a sidekick, a roly poly and somewhat bumbling human named Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, who immediately begins stealing scenes from his Oscar-winning costar. In fact Fogler’s disbelieving No-Mag is the single best thing in the film, and his romance with Porpentina’s psychic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) provides the only charm and genuine emotion.
Something’s amiss when the second bananas eclipse the leads.
Rowling’s over-busy screenplay tosses in all sorts of subplots and digressions which mostly serve to complicate matters.
Colin Farrell appears as a powerful sorcerer working to protect the magic world from the depredations of humans (or is he?).
Samantha Morton is creepy as a modern-day witch finder whose organization is based on the Salvation Army model with a touch of Salem, Massachusetts hysteria. Her adopted son (Ezra Miller) is a conflicted young man whose psychotic issues are acted out in spectacularly destructive ways.
Jon Voight shows up in a pointless role as a Rupert Murdoch-inspired newspaper magnate. . . presumably he’ll have more to do if there’s a sequel.
Like just about every big-budget film nowadays, “Fantastic Beasts. . .” ends with a destructive battle. At this point large-scale mayhem is simply boring.
Ultimately the film suffers because there’s nobody in charge. Director David Yates (a veteran of four “Potter” films and this year’s “Legend of Tarzan”) must have spent all his time dealing with the complicated technology.
Redmayne’s Newt is an oddball, and not in a particularly likable way. He’s blah, and so is Waterston as his tentative love interest.