November 19, 2016
I’ll admit to being a huge nerd. I still prefer to read books that are printed on actual paper, have a Lionel Richie playlist in my iTunes, collect Game of Thrones action figures, cry every time I watch Rudy or Hoosiers, and get super excited when my 5-year-old wants to have a light saber fight. The Harry Potter series proved that nerdiness and great entertainment value can truly coexist. And yet, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one of the dorkiest movies I’ve ever seen. And not in a good way.
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) plays Newt Scamander, the British magician who arrives in 1920’s NYC with a suitcase full of creatures, CGI cartoons that the leaders of the local wizarding society would like to keep under wraps. Of course, these critters are destined to get loose, and this where is the problems start both for the characters and for the audience. The contents of the suitcase are the first sign of nerdiness run amok: a jewelry/coin-hoarding mole/platypus thing, some snake-birds, a bulbous horned rhino-type, an ape-ish annoyance, and a baby Groot-esque plantlike creature. Weird, but hardly inventive or “fantastic.” And for all the havoc these beasts are supposed to wreak, the effect is more one of…cutesy mischief? They’re really not dangerous or anything, just weird figments of a green-screen’s imagination so why should we care?
About an hour in, a villain is finally introduced along with a secret society of witches and wizards and something about “obscurials” whose powers are oppressed, which leads to them basically turning to the dark side. Perhaps screenwriter (and novelist) J.K. Rowling felt no one who wasn’t a book reader would bother to see the film, but the script gives so little exposition that you’re left to fill in the narrative gaps on your own, not unlike some of the lesser Harry Potter movies.
Perhaps, that’s why we should care. There are certainly all the familiar symptoms of a Potter film: people with absurd names waving magic wands and spouting Latin-sounding gibberish (though, thank Voldemort, no quidditch matches). There are also wink-wink mentions of Potter characters from times past – or maybe future, who cares – and, of course, plenty of expensive CGI eye-crap. At times it feels more like a Who Framed Roger Rabbit prequel than a Harry Potter one. Just throw a couple of famous people up there and let them attempt to interact with things that obviously aren’t there. It didn’t work for the Star Wars prequels, but at a certain point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Jar-Jar crawl out of that suitcase. There’s even a cool reverse action sequence which might have been awesome had Doctor Strange not been released two weeks earlier and done it way better.
Redmayne simply doesn’t possess nearly the charm or spunk of Daniel Radcliffe and, while his role requires a decent amount of physical comedy, he’s noticeably mediocre at it. Mercifully, the opposite can be said of character actor Dan Fogler’s outstanding performance as Jacob Kowalski, the non-magician who gets accidentally embroiled in the troubled wizarding world. By far the best thing about the movie, Fogler is like a young, heavy-set Mr. Bean, eliciting hearty laughs with very limited dialogue thanks to his knack for both slapstick gestures and myriad facial expressions.
Elsewhere, talented actors like Colin Farrell, Ron Perlman, Samantha Morton, Katherine Waterston, and Jon Voight just kind of show up on set to collect a big Warner Bros paycheck and there’s even a lackluster cameo from Johnny Depp (ugh, as if anyone is clamoring for more of that right now). I may sound like a Muggle here, but as much as I like Colin Farrell, there’s only so much of him pointing his little stick and saying “ploopus possum” or some such nonsense before my popcorn starts to lose its flavor.
Alas, with four Fantastic Beasts sequels already announced, the phenomenon isn’t going away anytime soon, and the continuous oohs and awws of the screening audience along with their roar of applause at the film’s conclusion confirmed just how starved Harry Potter fanatics are for even the blandest half-baked morsel of J.K. Rowling material. Meanwhile, I was just happy that this one was over. Let’s face it, people: it’s going to take a lot more than this to make a magic wand as cool as a light saber again.
Star Rating: 1½ out of 5