Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a researcher of magical creatures, travels from Britain to New York in this Harry Potter expanded universe film. When one of his creatures escapes his person at a bank in a delightful opening set piece, Scamander gets apprehended by the equivalent of a magic police officer (Katherine Waterston) and a Nomag (aka a Muggle) gets away with Scamander’s briefcase full of creatures.
This all set in a 1920s period piece landscape including a dangerous wizard criminal, a conspiratorial anti-witch Muggle, and a looming dark presence.
David Yates returns to direct this Rowling-verse film (Yates directed the final four Potter films). Beasts has a similar feel to the Potter films in their warmer moments, although the film doesn’t lose sight of its differing time period. The aesthetic of New York is quite exquisite at first, even if it starts appearing more and more like a soundstage as the film progresses.
One early scene that introduces our Muggle audience surrogate (Dan Fogler) to the world inside Scamander’s briefcase illustrates two opposing points that are crucial to understanding this film. First, it shows a feat of inventive character design as it pertains to the creatures themselves.
Second, it shows a failed intent of spectacle. Our audience surrogate shows the intended reaction: utter awe. And Fogler does a fine job of portraying it. Indeed, he makes for many humorous moments in the film. However, the actual audience reaction is much less, understandably so.
The spectacle is simply not as magical, so to speak, given its relatively average special effects. This extended showcase, and other effects-based set pieces in the film, do not serve their intended magnificent function in a year that featured films such as The Jungle Book. A film like Beasts needs something more revolutionary in effects or an emphasis on narrative.
Speaking of which…
The narrative of the film is quite good off the bat. The network of characters create interweaving storylines that provide the promise of something grand. The transitions from plot point to plot point within these storylines, though, are rather forced in.
The issue with this weaving of plotlines and forced movement between them is that once everything converges into a climax it feels like an ill-defined series of stakes at work. We know what the stakes are, but they are merely presented as exposition, not as momentous implications.
The standalone story of Beasts is set up strongly, underdeveloped in the center in lieu of whimsical set pieces, and left to flounder in a climax that lacks an emotional arc. And it all leads to a final twist reveal that is both unnecessary and comically ill-conceived.
Given this lack of proper development, the resolution also seems lacking, each melancholic-turned-flowery wrap up less impactful than the last.
The characterization mimics this downward progression in spite of acting. Redmayne plays the lead with a shy yet puckish charm, doing a lot with a character who does little more in dialogue than give baseball card stats for various creatures. Waterston has a similarly limited character. Given these are the two lead characters, this is a surprising result.
The more interesting characters are actually the counterparts to the two leads. Fogler and Alison Sudol are charming and lively, and it is their connection that remains emotionally resonant to the end. When directly compared to the leads, as happens in the film, it is strange to see such a lack of life in the lead dynamic.
In the end, Beasts is a strange beast (of course the pun is intended). Rather bland leads are subverted by the supporting cast, and the wobbly story does not lend itself to a satisfying conclusion. While fine when viewed from set piece to set piece, even the effects work does not yield a project that is spectacle over substance. It all feels unfortunately half-baked. Creating a franchise out of such a rocky narrative foundation may prove a lofty task for Rowling moving forward.
Fantastic Beasts: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)