Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Eddie Redmayne in a return to Potter World, or someplace sort of like it.

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Beasts
Warner Bros

You can't go back to Hogwarts again, obviously—it ran out of books. But the newly devised American branch of the Harry Potter wizarding world is a feeble substitute. For one thing, there's no Harry (or Hermione, or Ron)—no children at all, in fact, unless you count one little girl who's basically a red herring. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the opening installment of a projected five-film franchise, is a good looking movie, with lots of Dickensian grit and gleaming Art Deco interiors; and its digital effects are unusually well-integrated. But the story is thin, and its characters short on the charm that distinguished the Potter series. The Beasts pictures will probably improve as they go along, but this is a weak kickoff.

It's the first Potter-world movie not to be based on a book by J.K. Rowling. Instead, Rowling wrote this story directly for the screen (it's her first script). Unfortunately, the result is muddled, and director David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter films, hasn't been able to clarify things. (He may be more successful with the next four pictures, which he's also onboard to direct.)

The story is set in 1926, when we see English "magizoologist" Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former Hogwarts student (and soon-to-be author of a book that will be familiar to Potter adepts), arriving in New York City after a year-long expedition spent searching out magical beasts around the world. He has collected many of these creatures, and being magical, they all fit snugly into a scuffed leather case he's carrying.

Newt immediately draws the attention of Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, of Steve Jobs). Tina is a defrocked Auror—a hunter of evil wizards—who's trying to get back into the good graces of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) by busting a major miscreant, which Newt, with his mysterious carrying case, gives every indication of being. Newt is unaware that Tina is stalking him, because he's so caught up in the strange goings-on in New York. An epidemic of dark magic in Europe, fomented by renegade anti-Muggle wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, briefly seen at the end of the picture), has jumped the pond and is now taking over Manhattan. This has provoked a vitriolic anti-wizard movement whose most visible proponent is Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who runs a grim orphanage in the city and preaches the necessity of a "Second Salem" reckoning out on the street. ("Witches live among us!" she cries.)

Newt is puzzled by all this. In Britain, the Ministry of Magic has a cooperative relationship with the Muggle world. In this country, where Muggles are known by the ungainly name No-Majs, MACUSA enforces a strict segregation, overseen by dour security chief Percival Graves (Colin Farrell at full glower in a dramatic cloak-like overcoat). So it bodes ill when Newt finds himself inadvertently involved with a No-Maj baker named Jacob Kowalski (likable Dan Fogler), with whom he sets out in search of some creatures that have escaped from his case. Before long, these two, reluctantly accompanied by Tina and more happily by her cheery, mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, of Dig), run afoul of the deeply disapproving MACUSA. Many magical creatures are met (some of a merch-ready cuteness), and much top-shelf CGI (including a requisite metropolis-trashing) is unleashed.

The movie's problems begin with its star. Redmayne plays Newt with a muffled delivery that's sometimes hard to understand, and he wears one expression throughout the picture—a look of bashful dweebiness that's uninteresting to begin with and grows more so as the story proceeds. And Waterson—like Redmayne, a gifted actor—is given very little room to maneuver within the confines of her fussy character. Sudol is far more personable as Queenie—a bit of a ditz with a large heart. And Ezra Miller, playing one of Mary Lou's miserable wards (even his rough-hacked haircut seems unhappy), has a haunted presence not entirely unlike that of the dark Tom Marvolo Riddle in the second Potter film.

The movie's liveliest character is a goblin bar owner played by Ron Perlman, who has been digitally reduced to a barrel-shaped wisecracker, and who expresses himself in the cadences of a Port of New York longshoreman. ("So ya got a case fulla mon-stahs, huh?") Perlman is only around for one scene, but it's a funny one, and we miss him the moment it's over.

There are some dazzling CGI scenes (in one of the best, Queenie assembles a strudel in the air over a kitchen table.) And for admirers of social uplift, the story is of course larded with Rowling's usual message of loving tolerance for misunderstood outsiders. It's most resonant moment, however, is a veiled allusion to the frustration of closeted gays, in which we see one character huddled closely with a young man in a dank alley, hissing, "We've lived in the shadows for too long."

None of the movie's flaws are likely to be deal-killers for Potter fans (the audience at the screening I attended cheered at the end). But it'd be nice to see them more fully served next time out.

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  1. i wonder if this would’ve been better with a stronger screenwriter? j.k. is awesome, but a book and a movie are two different disciplines. one of my major complaints about talented people is they often don’t appreciate their niche. that said, i look forward to seeing this and want lost more ‘potter’ in all its forms.

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  2. Unlike most of the Potter movie fans I know, I thought the books were fantastic but th emovies bungled just about every step. Ron was dull and dumb beyond; Hermione was tolerable but kept in the background (why was her one minute scene cut out from where all thre were chasing the basilisk?), and Harry — good god he was a miserable shallow sad shadow of the book’s Harry. The book Harry was a feisty little bugger, ready and willing to duck out of school, do mischief, and generally not put up with stupid adults and bureaucrats. The movie Harry might as well have been tugging at his forelock from beginning to end, for what little initiative he showed, always kowtowing to adults and upper clas boys alike.

    What I would love would be a miniseries adaptation of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I fell in love with it over teh first train station scene, where Ron tries to interest him in Quidditch, but when he learns how stupid the scoring rules are, he wants nothing to do with him, and instead finds Draco and proceeds to teach him rational thinking and upend the entire Magic world in one year. I don’t remember one false move in it, once you accept that Rational Harry has a rational father and proceeds to experiment iwth magic instead of just memorizing everything without curiousity.

    1. The entire premise of HPMOR is that wizards are so thoroughly soaked in magic that logic is a mystery to them. Everyone thinks of technology like Mr Weasley — incomprehensible in the smallest things. Draco, for instance, thinks pictures of astronauts on the moon are fakes, cannot comprehend guns, TV, etc — does not know the slightest thing about electricity, computers, etc. It is far easier for one steeped in rationality and logic, like Harry, to outwit wizards after studying (*and* experimenting with) magic. The experimentation is vital — wizards are so used to just memorizing arbitrary spells that they are dumbfounded and mystified that he will experiment with slight variations on the wand moves and the spell sounds — he tries stretching out syllables, changing the accent, modifying vowels, something wizards don’t do — spells are cast in stone, never to be questioned.

      It’s a far more believable world than the Harry Potter novels, and especially the movies. So many things in it that had occurred to me to — like the idiotic Quidditch scoring, experimenting with spells and magical artifacts, figuring out that brooms ignore Newton’s laws of action and reaction and instead just go where you want, no pesky momentum and acceleration not even a concept.

      I recommend it to everybody.

      1. I didn’t know this existed, but the concept as you lay it out here is fascinating.

        1. I enjoyed it.

          1. I take it S &W wrote this?

            1. Smith and Wesson?

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      2. Isn’t that what made Voldemort so powerful? A willingness to experiment?

        Isn’t that also what destroyed him?

        It seems that experimenting with a spell is ridiculously dangerous.

        1. “It seems that experimenting with a spell X is ridiculously dangerous.”

          Said every Luddite ever.

      3. This seems interesting. I’ll have to check it out.

      4. Draco, for instance, thinks pictures of astronauts on the moon are fakes, cannot comprehend guns…

        So where is he going on to tell his story, Alex Jones or Young Turks?
        .
        .

        …does not know the slightest thing about electricity, computers, etc.

        Ah, The View, then, I presume.

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    2. The book Harry was a feisty little bugger

      Wow. They really did leave some significant stuff out of the movies.

      1. Hogwarts is a British boarding school, of course he’s a bugger.

        1. +1 Anal Circumference

  3. I didn’t see that Reason ran a review of Hacksaw Ridge, but it was pretty damn awesome–from a libertarian perspective even.

    It’s an example of someone who is absolutely unyielding on their religious convictions–doing something that leftists like.

    Normally, I’d think that would be selling out. Why should it matter that Desmond Doss followed his religious convictions to do something the left likes?

    I think it was important because people are so far gone against religion these days, it’s necessary to remind them that it’s possible that people’s religious convictions might lead good people to do good things.

    Religion isn’t just about Sharia, refusing to bake cakes for homosexuals, and nuns refusing to help liberals fornicate.

    If all the laws and police had disappeared, no one had anything to fear from Desmond Doss. So, yeah, respecting the rights of people who won’t compromise on their beliefs can be a good thing for society–but refusing to respect people’s right to make choices for themselves necessarily makes the difference between a good society and a bad society.

  4. A disinterested observer watching the battle of Iwo Jima might not be able to tell the moral difference between the protagonists on the battlefield, except that one side drove all its soldiers to engage in suicidal, human wave, Banzai attacks while the other side permitted an individual soldier like Desmond Doss the right to make choices for himself–up to and including the choice of whether to bear arms.

    Yeah, that’s the difference between a good society and a bad society, and that’s a damn libertarian message.

  5. Fantastic Beasts is supposed to be a series? Maybe they’ll get around to alt-text in the sequels.

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  9. I just saw the trailer. With all that CGI and awesome music, who needs character development or plot? Just sit back in the dark theater and let it wash over you.

  10. It’s most resonant moment, however, is a veiled allusion to the frustration of closeted gays, in which we see one character huddled closely with a young man in a dank alley, hissing, “We’ve lived in the shadows for too long.”

    We’re seriously still pretending gays feel compelled to stay in the closet? For Pete’s sake, they won’t shut up! We’ve been hectored, bullied and coerced into accepting them whether we like it or not.

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  14. Has Kurt Loder – ETERNAL SCORNFUL HIPSTER- ever met a good movie that he didn’t HATE? Jesus, the flick is solid – it’s great! It’s fun and visually is PHENOMENAL. Goddamn, dude – you hate fun as much as a progressive….

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