Friday, November 18, 2016

Less Than Fantastic

I'm interrupting stories of Orlando, but staying Orlando-adjacent in writing about the world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling is back with a new story in her famous universe. But this time, she's written directly for the movie screen instead of the novel page, with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Keeping vague so as not to spoil things for those headed to see the film this weekend, this movie follows eccentric British wizard Newt Scamander as he travels to America in the mid-1920s. His enchanted briefcase full of magical creatures is compromised, allowing a few to escape. Hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, a darker story is set up for the future film franchise to come.

I'm sorry to report that the magic isn't firing on all cylinders in this new movie. It's by no means a disaster; J.K. Rowling has plenty of good elements in the mix, her creativity on full display. But it's quite possible that she needs the sprawl of a novel to communicate clearly, and needs a script writer to adapt her work for optimal clarity.

The narrative of Fantastic Beasts is a confused jumble. Capturing escaped creatures is straightforward enough, but the B-plot is far from it. I'm partly not detailing it to avoid spoilers, but also because I'm not sure I can confidently explain it even after having seen it.

Characters are a bit hit-and-miss. The world is fleshed out with a lot of one-note filler with motivations that serve only the plot -- though you might just have easily said the same of any of the Hogwarts professors after just one Harry Potter book, so this isn't a major complaint. Unfortunately, Newt Scamander himself is a hard-to-root-for character who feels responsible for most of his own problems. And Eddie Redmayne's take on "quiet introvert" comes out much of the time in incoherent mumbling -- you will not understand at least one-third of his dialogue in the film.

But there are bright spots. Again, steering clear of spoilers, I'll just say that the characters of Jacob (played by Dan Fogler) and Queenie (played by Alison Sudol) are delightful, both individually and when paired together on screen. They're easily the best part of the movie, both of them a bit different from what we've seen before in the Harry Potter universe

Speaking of different, it works to the film's advantage that it's a period piece set in the 1920s. It's also great that the action takes place in the real world, rather than remaining cloistered in the wizarding world as most of the Harry Potter stories did. Both these aspects really refresh the universe and provide new elements to play with. Less successful, though, is the hop "across the pond" to set the story in New York. American magic society doesn't feel sufficiently different from British magic society in any way that makes the transposition worthwhile.

The film boasts the most impressive visuals by far in the Harry Potter film franchise. This goes not just for specific set pieces, but really shows in the creature design itself -- a lot of the "beasts" of the title are quite fun. A couple even have personalities more developed than some of the human characters (though that's both a blessing and a curse).

There are tantalizing hints (both in plot elements and in casting) that an intriguing franchise could unfold in future movies. This film alone, however, is decidedly middle of the road. I give it a C+. I wouldn't necessarily rush out to see it at the theater.

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