JK Rowling has told her millions of fans that Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is the first in a series of five films. It’s odd, then, that director David Yates tried to fit at least two films into the first instalment.
The titular story is that of Newt Scamander, whose lines are mumbled, sometimes almost to the point of indistinctness, by Eddie Redmayne. Scamander is a scholar of magical beasts, a magizoologist, if you will, who fetches up in Depression-era New York to track down a particular magical beast, bringing with him for reasons that may — I’m not entirely clear, but then neither was the script, on this point — or may not be made apparent a Tardis-like suitcase full of other specimens. He befriends Kowalski (Dan Fogler, in perhaps the most innocent and engaging role in the film), a “no-maj” — Americans have a different word for everything, it would seem, including the “muggles” of the Harry Potter books — to whom he introduces Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Teenie (Katherine Waterston), two witchy sisters, one of whom was once an investigator for the Magical Congress Of The United States, the American equivalent, apparently, of the Ministry of Magic. In a parallel storyline, Mr. Graves, a highly dodgy Colin Farrell, is keeping a close eye on Creedence (Ezra Miller), a young man in the care of Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) a woman who is rabidly opposed to witchcraft and wizardry, but is less troubled by the beating of her charges.
And so the two storylines develop largely independently of each other. There’s a very interesting and quite dark — one of the crusading woman’s young charges is a girl who chants a hopscotch rhyme about flogging and hanging witches — story about a campaign against magic and the suppression of magical skills, a story that needed much more than screen time it gets in this film. It’s a story that deserves a lot of development and exploration, but which gets very little in this film. Why does she hate magic as much as she does? What drives her animosity toward the wizarding world? There are questions that could be answered in a much more satisfying film.
Then there’s the ostensibly central story, the fantastic beasts that Scamander is shepherding. And it doesn’t really work terribly well. There is no need for Scamander to have magical creatures in New York — there’s little reason, really, for him to be there — and his storyline plays out largely so that Yates can show off a few clever special-effect creatures. But there’s not much substance to this story.
All this would be easier to take if we hadn’t been spoilt rotten over the years by Rowling’s previous work. The Potter universe was beautifully developed, richly detailed, and inhabited by fleshed-out characters. But FBAWTFT lacks the mature thoroughness of the earlier films. There are occasional flashbacks, such as scenes set in the MCUSA, which stand up to the depictions of Hogwarts from the Potter films, but while the detail was often finely drawn, the film simply lacked the immersive joy of, in particular, the very first Harry Potter film.
The blame for this lies partly with what has come between the Harry Potter series and this film. In what is now the standard practice for a new superhero in one of the established superhero film universes, FBAWTFT is an origins story. We’ve been introduced to Newt Scamander, we know a little about him, and we’ve met a future villain; film one in the series, then, is no longer a standalone piece, but rather a prologue to the substance, which will, one will hope, come in later films. Indeed, the big smash-bang climax is so smashy-bangy-climaxy that it’s a little hard to follow, in the finest traditions of Captain Iron Superhero or whoever is the latest to wear a highly questionable cape. Even wands are fired like they’re guns, for pity’s sake.
There is, somewhere inside the two and a quarter hours of Fantastic Beasts, at least one really interesting film trying to get out. But it’s been smothered by gratuitous special effects and utterly unnecessary Americanisation. The Americanisation is a little clanging in its lack of subtlety at times — New York is presented almost as a caricature of itself, while the miscegenation laws keeping wizards and witches from marrying the general population are a parallel of American racism so obvious as to be laboured, while Madam President (an elegantly and understatedly powerful Carmen Ejogo) can sadly only be seen now as a wish-fulfilment fantasy.
Rowling can — we know she can — write a cracking novel, and her novels can be made into cracking films, sometimes by David Yates. This is her first attempt at writing a screenplay. I’d suggest that it be her last.