movie film review | chris tookey

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

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  Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them Review
Tookey's Rating
2 /10
Average Rating
5.85 /10
Eddie Redmayne , Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston
Full Cast >

Directed by: David Yates
Written by: J.K. Rowling

Released: 2016
Origin: US/ UK
Length: 132

In 1926 New York, writer Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, which are accidentally released. He has to find them, as though he’s in a costume-party game of Pokemon Go.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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If ever a film was critic-proof, this is it. A long-awaited prequel to the Harry Potter franchise, this flight of fancy looks as though it had a virtually unlimited budget. The special effects are spectacular, and David Yates (who directed four of the Harry Porter films), does a competent job of organizing the material in a way that pleases the eye, if not the brain. The designers have fun with period costumes and architecture. But Harry Potter was recognizably a labour of love. Fantastic Creatures is a creature of commerce.

The many fine actors in the cast have little or no chemistry with each other, and several performances feel wildly misjudged.

Early on, Eddie Redmayne announces “I’m annoying”, and indeed he is. An assemblage of all the frightfully English stammers and twitches that Hugh Grant rejected, Newt Scamander is supposed to be charming, but he’s much too desperate to ingratiate. He needed to have the boyish enthusiasm of David Attenborough; instead, he has the hectoring quality of James Corden trying to make us laugh. In an attempt to make sense of his character, Redmayne makes him appear borderline-autistic by avoiding eye contact with the other actors. This lack of human connection merely adds to the sense of a void at the centre of the film.

One strength of the Harry Potter series is that the audience discovered the wizarding universe along with the three central characters. This made us root for them. Newt knows too much from the start, which would alienate us even if he wasn’t so profoundly irritating.

Oddly enough, a supporting character, Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, an earnestly aspiring New York baker who becomes unwillingly entangled in Scamander’s problems, comes across as quite a bit more sympathetic, as he boggles at the fantastic creatures that Scamander takes for granted. Unlike Newt and virtually all the other characters, Jacob’s allowed something resembling warmth and character development. If more characters had been written with this amount of care, the movie might have been tolerable.

The female lead is meant to be Katherine Waterstone, as a kind of magical policewoman who’s fallen out with her superiors. But she’s a bit of a drip, certainly no Hermione, and her relationship with Newt never develops in an interesting way. Also wasted is Jon Voight, who turns up as a newspaper tycoon trying to get his son elected to Congress. He seems to have wandered in from another movie, and should go back there.

It’s a weakness of Rowling’s amateurish screenplay, which has no notion of pace or structure, that she sets up a potentially exhilarating situation, with outrageous monsters running amok all over New York, but makes little attempt to follow her idea through on a human level. The authorities don’t seem all that perturbed, and Newt doesn’t either. There’s a prevailing flippancy which makes it hard for the audience to care.

At first the movie tries desperately hard to be obstreperous, magical fun, like the original Ghostbusters, but that gives way to a much more disjointed second half. It turns heavy-handed and pedantic. The story becomes ridiculously convoluted and overcrowded, with endless exposition, so it will lose small children (and the vast majority of adults). This darker side of the picture is given over to feuding within the wizarding world, which may be of interest to Rowling, but certainly wasn’t to me. Colin Farrell is saddled with a villainous role that makes little sense and makes no use of his acting talent.

And don’t get me started on the dark, child-abuse subtext, which seems wholly out-of-keeping with the generally child-friendly approach. Ezra Miller’s anguished performance belongs to a totally different film, as does Samantha Morton’s psychotic intensity as an anti-magic fanatic. Despite all the superficial and over-the-top characterisation, Rowling has a manic determination to teach us that racism and homophobia are wrong. She rides that hobby-horse for all it is worth, well into entertainment oblivion.

Fantastic Beasts bears the same relationship to the Harry Potter films that The Hobbit did to The Lord of the Rings; it’s overblown, over-extended and lacks the wonder and emotional power of the original. As a director, Yates is okay with the visuals and never happier than when metaphorically throwing money at the screen, but he seems to have zero flair for pace or narrative.

Rowling needed someone brave enough to tell her that her script was no good. Of course, this film will make money. But that’s based on the strength of its predecessors and a loyal fanbase. Unless there are major improvements and a competent screenwriter, audiences will soon drift away. This may seem a perverse thing to say about a movie that will make hundreds of millions of dollars, but Warner Brothers have a dud on their hands.

Some of the “pro” reviews were enough to make me despair of the future of criticism. The job of a critic is to tell the truth, not surf the waves of public expectation and back commercial “winners”, regardless of their faults.

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