One thing that was always missing from the Harry Potter books and movies was the Americans. J.K. Rowling alluded to differences in the ways her wizard characters were educated outside Britain, but she never mentioned our nation. It’s curious, since arguably (like the Beatles) her most devoted audience was always in this country. Well, now we have Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel intended to redress that balance. I wish she’d had a more auspicious introduction to our shores.
The film begins with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York some time in the 1930s, having been ejected from Hogwarts with a briefcase full of magical animals. This catches the eye of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced former investigator for America’s governing body of magic. When the animals get loose, Newt and Tina have to corral them before they cause damage in a country running rife with anti-wizard paranoia.
This is J.K. Rowling’s first effort writing directly for the screen, and the problem is she’s trying to squeeze an entire novel into the 133-minute running time. She’s trying to address issues of racism, terrorism, and people repressing their natural selves, and her themes come out muddled. The central idea is promising, that Newt is the wizarding world’s version of an animal conservationist, trying to persuade his fellow wizards to protect magical creatures instead of killing them, but that idea doesn’t lead anywhere interesting. The anti-magic religious zealots and their leader (Samantha Morton) are a fairly scary lot, and I could have used more time with them and insight into how they think. I particularly like the creepy, manipulative, quasi-sexual subplot between the magic administrator (Colin Farrell) and his informant (Ezra Miller), a beaten-down kid inside the zealots’ compound, but that too often gets lost like everything else. Director David Yates stays on from the last five Potter films, and he’s clearly spared no expense in re-creating Depression Era New York, but he doesn’t have the flair to render those magical creatures in ways that make us understand why Newt is so taken with them. This part of the film needed Guillermo Del Toro.
What I realized watching this was how much the Potter movies relied on the skill and charisma of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. The actors here are introducing new characters from scratch, and so far they’re not that gripping. Redmayne emits an absent-minded professor vibe, but neither that nor the hints of a troubled backstory for Newt are enough to make us invest in him. Waterston, whose swooping eyebrows make it seem like she’s always about to burst into tears, doesn’t convey the impulses that make this woman pursue a career, an unusual thing for that time period. The acting honors get hijacked by Alison Sudol as Tina’s flirtatious sister and Dan Fogler as a humble factory worker without magical powers who gets caught up in the plot.
We might recall that the Harry Potter films themselves needed a couple of movies and Alfonso Cuarón to find their groove. Being part of the Potter universe will certainly attract no shortage of onscreen talent, but we seem to be in need of a more polished screenwriter and a director who can do better at building this new fictional world.