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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, November 25, 2016

Critics Corner: Fantastic beasts indeed




When the final Harry Potter film faded to black, Warner Bros. must have wept. For eight films, the studio had a license to print money.

But with the story of Harry, Ron and Hermione complete, Warner Bros. was left scrambling for another cash cow. Well, they found one, and they didn’t have to go far.

Somewhere in the Harry Potter book series (don’t ask me where; I haven’t read the first page of a Potter novel), author J.K. Rowling mentions a textbook called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” The book is a directory of magical creatures with an introduction written by its author, Newt Scamander.

In 2001, Rowling published an actual edition of the textbook to be sold to raise money for a British charity. The book contained no story, but that didn’t stop Warner Bros. and other Potter film veterans from using it as the seed from which they intend to grow another series of films set in the wizarding world.

While I enjoy a good fantasy adventure romp, the new movie only partially works. A big part of why falls on Rowling’s shoulders, as she wrote the script.

As Rowling has proven through her Potter novels, she has a knack for creating compelling characters, whether they’re likable and good-hearted or as nasty as a pit of vipers. She does that in “Fantastic Beasts,” with varying degrees of success.

I liked Scamander, a British wizard who carries a suitcase full of the titular beasts and arrives in New York on a mission to return one to its native home. I was ambivalent toward Tina Goldstein, a Ministry of Magic agent who pursues Scamander after a number of his creatures escape the suitcase and wreak havoc in the Big Apple. Rowling drew her a bit dull. Maybe she used all of her bright colors on Jacob Kowalski, a “no-maj” (non-magical person) who gets wrapped up in things. He has the best lines and the best laughs, and he gets the girl.

Unfortunately, none of these characters have the same degree of gravity as the gang from the Potter books. Eddie Redmayne is a wonderful actor and does a bang-up job as Scamander, and I like how Rowling cast a socially awkward pariah who has trouble looking people in the eye as the hero, but he’s no Harry.

Likewise, the bad guy at the center of “Fantastic Beasts” is no Severus Snape or Voldemort – at least not yet.

The story also lacks dramatic pull. For much of “Fantastic Beasts,” Rowling seems to be more interested in world building than telling a coherent story. For awhile, I was OK with this.

The opening scene, in which Scamander unwittingly involves Kowalski in his escapade and draws the unwanted attention of Goldstein, is fun. But as the film wore on and the meat of the story hovered just out of frame, I grew restless and realized I had only a loose grasp of what was going on.

The story does gel eventually, but it takes too long to get there, and even then, there are loose threads. (For example, a certain character keeps mentioning a prophecy that never seems relevant.)

There’s also a sense that everyone tried too hard to recreate the Potter magic. “Fantastic Beasts” opens with the “Harry Potter” theme playing over the Warner Bros. logo, lest we forget what we’re about to watch.

Worse, the scene that should have been the centerpiece of the film – when Scamander takes Kowalski inside his suitcase to meet the creatures – seems to shout, “Isn’t this amazing?” The bombastic music alone turned me off.

Perhaps I’m being an oaf. Some truly fantastic creatures populate the film. I did like some of the characters, and director David Yates, who helmed four Potter films, made a beautiful movie, despite his odd aversion to color. (Like Potter 5-8, “Fantastic Beasts” uses a curiously muted color pallete.)

There’s also a lot of action and humor and some juicy dark moments. The only things missing are characters who are more captivating and a coherent story.

Warner Bros. can stop crying, though, as their printing press appears to be in working order. I’m sure Potter fans are thrilled to have another story set in the wizarding world to experience, and any mugggles who get dragged along to “Fantastic Beasts” should find a thing or two to hold their attention.

Let’s just hope Rowling and company do better with the next one.

Two and one-half stars