There are eight films in the Harry Potter series. David Yates directed the last four. All the films are based on a series of books, written by J. K. Rowling. Rowling wrote the novels, but the screenplays were always penned by someone else, mainly Steve Kloves.
Rowling decided to be the screenwriter this time around, adapting her book of the same name, which stands as a prequel to her popular Harry Potter series. Yates is directing, but, instead of London and the present-day, this movie is set in the 1920’s and in New York City.
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl) stars as Newt Scamander, a wizard who travels from London to New York with his magical briefcase. The briefcase holds a wide variety of wondrous creatures. The briefcase is in fact a doorway to a magical terrarium or menagerie. It’s also a kind of sanctuary because the general consensus seems to be these creatures need to be hunted and killed, but Newt wants to protect them. He’s even writing a book that’s meant to catalog all these creatures as it is to promote conservation until he can find a home for them.
Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice and Steve Jobs) co-stars as Tina Goldstein, a fellow wizard who works for the Magical Congress of the USA, or MCUSA, a government-like organization that oversees the activities of wizards or magical beings in the United States. MCUSA tries to make sure that magic stays hidden, but when Newt arrives in the city, a few of his magical creatures escape from his briefcase and run a muck, and Tina has to help to capture the creatures.
Dan Fogler also co-stars as Jacob Kowalski, a baker who fought in World War I and who now wants a bank loan to start his own bakery. He runs into Newt and sees him using magic. He’s attacked by one of the creatures and gets pulled into the adventure to get all the creatures back. He’s a bit of the comic relief, or if Newt is the Harry Potter-equivalent, then Kowalski is the Ron Weasley-equivalent. Instead of being a ginger, Kowalski is a bit pudgy.
Alison Sudol also co-stars as Queenie Goldstein, the sister of Tina who isn’t a wizard but she is a magical being. Specifically, she’s a telepath. She can read people’s thoughts and she develops a crush on Kowalski. She comes to help him and her sister in the adventure as well.
Most of the movie simply becomes about the adventure and the four characters moving from set-piece to set-piece. Ostensibly, the movie feels like Jumanji (1995). Except, there isn’t the comic style of Robin Williams fueling the adventure. Fogler is good, but he’s no Robin Williams. Redmayne even tries some pratfalls and physical gags, but he can’t bring what a well-trained, stand-up comic can bring.
The only thing left is to ogle at the special effects. All the creatures are some CGI creation. Aside from the Niffler, which is the tiny creature that likes to steal shiny objects, the variety of creatures weren’t that memorable or impressive. None of the creatures were given any kind of personality or unique traits that would make any kind of indelible impression. Arguably, neither did the animals in Jumanji but they were just regular animals. They weren’t the magical creatures in this movie.
Every time Newt went into his briefcase, it was like Heath Ledger going into the magical world in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Oddly enough, as I was watching this film, the various Harry Potter films weren’t running through my mind. What was running through my mind was another Eddie Redmayne film and that’s Jupiter Ascending (2015). Despite what the Rotten Tomatoes score is, that film was better than this one because at least Redmayne is giving a performance, as opposed to just looking cute here. Yet, they do fall down similarly on what could be considered stakes.
In both Redmayne movies, there is imagery of cities being destroyed but then magically rebuilt, as if nothing ever happened. Like in Men in Black (1997), there’s also a kind of neuralyzer that erases people’s memories. Therefore, anything that happens negatively can be fixed, and life can go on with no consequences. If there are no consequences, there are no stakes, which makes the whole thing either a waste of time or simply boring.
One of my favorite things about wizards and magic was the TV series Charmed and it’s because that series understood stakes and consequences, a lot better than this film. A person does die in this film, but it barely registers at all. Maybe this movie could have gotten there, if it did a better job with the relationship between Queenie and Kowalski, or Mr. Graves, played by Colin Farrell, and Credence, played by Ezra Miller. Graves and Credence are the two antagonists who have an almost father-son relationship, but it’s not developed well-enough that one feels the emotion behind them. It’s mainly just a political stance on the part of Graves.
Rated PG-13 for some action violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 13 mins.