The special effects are stellar, and the John Williams score powerful. But the movie seems to lack charisma.
J.K. Rowling, it seems, can’t quite let go of the “Harry Potter” universe. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the new movie scripted by Rowling and directed by David Yates, was recently announced as the first of a planned five-movie franchise — a sort of prequel/spinoff from the world explored in eight “Potter” movies, inspired by a Hogwarts textbook.
The new film begins in 1926 New York, where magizoologist and former Hogwarts student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has arrived with a suitcase of magical beasts in tow — only to find a city torn by a mysterious destructive force (it’s like “a dark wind with eyes”), and a missing dark wizard.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,’ with Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell. Directed by David Yates, from a screenplay by J.K. Rowling, based on her book. 133 minutes. Rated PG-13 for fantasy action violence. Several theaters.
All this sounds like good magical fun, so why does “Fantastic Beasts” feel ever-so-slightly flat? The special effects are stellar, particularly the playful entrances and exits through that battered suitcase, and a breathless scene in which the camera seems to fly through the whimsical offices of the Magical Congress of the United States of America. (I saw the film at a preview screening in 2D IMAX, so can’t comment on the 3D effects.)
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The various beasts — which run the gamut from scary to cuddly to ethereal to goofy — are all more than ready for their close-ups. And there’s no denying the magical power of John Williams’ iconic “Harry Potter” theme music, delicately playing over the opening moments and sending a happy shiver down many a backbone.
No, the problem’s one of charisma. The “Harry Potter” movies, in their early installments, stacked the deck by populating the screen with adorable young children (nearly all of whom, amazingly, grew up to be fine actors) and veteran thespians who dominated their brief scenes.
Here we watch as Redmayne, who can be a fine actor (“The Theory of Everything”) when he’s not having to be quirkily adorable, gets lost in a sea of glassy-eyed vagueness, wistful smiles and stunned expressions, peering up through his bangs like a confused Hugh Grant character. (It’s a tricky balancing act — how do you play a self-described annoying person without actually being annoying? — and Redmayne teeters on the tightrope.) And his Newt can’t seem to find much chemistry, romantic or otherwise, with the Auror-turned-ally Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).
On a happier note, Dan Fogler is effortlessly endearing as a No-Maj (the American word for muggle) would-be baker who gets caught up in helping round up Newt’s missing beasts. And there’s undeniable talent in the supporting roles — Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo — though as yet no character as distinctive as, say, Snape or McGonagall.
So there’s room for improvement in the “Fantastic Beasts” universe; perhaps we’ll see it in the next installment or two. Meanwhile — even if you, like me, are a bit Pottered out and wish Rowling would devote herself instead to her marvelous Cormoran Strike detective-novel series (magic comes in many forms) — it’s still a pleasure to revisit the author’s world. In one throwaway moment, a rumpled Newt points his wand at his bow tie, mutters something — and, whoosh, it ties itself. Just try not to smile.