As a novelist, J.K. Rowling is sheer magic. But as a first-time screenwriter, does she similarly enchant?
By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Let’s consider the ingredients of this particular cauldron entitled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:
– The pedigree of the Harry Potter franchise;
– Creator J.K. Rowling;
– Director David Yates, helmer of 4 Harry Potter films; and
– Star Eddie Redmayne, the 2015 Academy Award winner for Best Actor.
Yet somehow … the potion has gone awry.
A prequel to the worldwide blockbuster franchise, this fantasy adventure jumps across the pond, from the UK to the U.S. It jumps back 70 years as well, to a visually stirring Manhattan of 1926, replete with glorious gilt-laden buildings (representing the “haves”) and teeming cobblestoned streets awash in drab grays and browns (representing the “have-nots”).
The story centers around 29-year-old wizard/”magizoologist” and onetime Hogwarts student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who has traveled around the world to research and often rescue endangered magical creatures that he has, um, ferreted out. Based upon this extensive research, Newt will ultimately write the textbook “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an encyclopedic source that will become required reading for all first-year Hogwarts students, including Harry and his pals.
The film opens on Newt as he lands in America, the last stop on his journey prior to going home. Unbeknownst to humans (aka muggles or No-Majs), the battered, nondescript valise by his side houses a variety of fantastical animals of all shapes and sizes. Due to a mix-up with another man’s suitcase — the schlubby baker Kowalski (Dan Fogler) — the chase for Newt’s valise and his newly escaped beasties is on. But Newt has to be covert. Similar to the Harry Potter movies, if the underground wizarding world is exposed, the leak could lead to war and possible eradication.
Adding to the mix is an otherworldly, destructive monstrosity, “the Obscurus,” that looks less like a monster and more like a humongous dust bunny. Simply put: Voldemort it ain’t.
Utterly confounding is the fact that veteran David Yates directs the film with pacing akin to the inertia of a three-toed sloth. An actor will utter a humdrum line … followed by an inexplicably long pause … followed by a second humdrum line. Rather than its already lengthy 133 minutes, Fantastic Beasts feels more like a slog through War and Peace. Sans intermission.
As for the writing, Rowling’s acute sense of tight plotting in book form has given way to a floppy wander through scenes that are in frequent free-fall from the story. It doesn’t help that the CGI department is so much in thrall with its animal creations that the story grinds to a halt during the scenes where the beasts — like fashion models on the runway — get to strut their stuff. It’s as if the animators are simply showing off their skills, creating animated natural history dioramas, rather than integrating the creatures into the film as a whole.
On the human side, Redmayne’s Newt is a sweet, earnest bumbler, preferring the company of animals over humans. Whether the problem lies with the writing or the direction, the blisteringly talented Redmayne comes up surprisingly flat, boxed into an over-simplified character. He teams up with an American wizard/fired auror Tina (Katherine Waterston, excellent in Queen of Earth), a tearfully wimpy girl who never gets the credit she deserves from her superiors. While the duo makes a good match, these characters don’t exactly set the wizarding world on fire.
Thankfully, sparks of magic emanate from the supporting cast. Dan Fogler’s Kowalski is an utter delight as the accidental tourist of the bewitching world, a wizard, um, wand-a-be. His comic reactions are priceless, as is the scene in which he attempts to squeeze his portly physique into a midsize valise. Fogler whips up a sugar-coated palooka, with a hefty serving of raw vulnerability on the side.
And then there’s Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Marilyn Monroe-esque peaches-and-cream beauty who appears to be an airhead. In truth, as a Legilimens, or mind reader, not only does she know her own mind, but everyone else’s as well. More than merely appear on screen, Queenie glides into view, radiating light and love and joy. Will the beauty and the baker ever get together? Given that there are four more Fantastic Beasts movies planned for this franchise, we’ll most certainly find out.
Underlying the introductory Warner Bros. logo, the first few strains of John Williams’ iconic Harry Potter theme (“Hedwig’s Theme”) embrace us, inviting us back to the land we’ve dearly missed. Within moments, composer James Newton Howard transitions away from Williams’ music to his own. The opening is terrific; however, as the movie develops, the score becomes ear-shatteringly annoying, loudly cueing us into obvious emotional reactions. To say the score is overdone … is an understatement. Even a scene as silly as the lovesick creature known as an Erumpent (think a massive buffalo sporting the head of the Elephant Man), attempting to mate with the unfortunate Kowalski, is accompanied by so much unnecessary music that it gets in the way. And getting in the way of a charging elephantine Elephant-headed buffalo is no laughing matter. (Though without all the cacophony, it could have been just that.)
A suggestion for Harry Potter aficionados: flip back through J.K. Rowling’s tomes (or Google) to familiarize yourself with Newt Scamander and the pre-Voldemort villain Gellert Grindelwald. The filmmakers’ assumption that the Fantastic Beasts audience has a working knowledge of these arcane characters from nearly four decades prior to Harry is utter hocus pocus.
So much for this opening salvo into this new franchise. For now, we’ll have to hope that the filmmakers’ second installment will deliver some brilliant magical thinking. After all, Harry would expect nothing less.
Rating on a scale of 5 spelling lessons: 2.5
Release date: November 18, 2016 (presented in 2D, 3D and IMAX)
Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell
Running Time: 133 minutes
Here’s the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: