Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"


 The act of watching “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is like riding an amusement park ride with the speed set way too fast. There are indeed many amazing creatures in the movie, but they whiz by so quickly they barely have time to register. Characters are introduced and misplaced in a flash. Storylines stretch out before us like a tangle of vines, and we must step lively to figure out which ones lead to dead ends.

Even Eddie Redmayne as the main character, Newt Scamander, does not seem entirely there. Chin perpetually in his chest, eyes averted, he stammers and fidgets like a fourth-rate Hugh Grant character in a romantic comedy, minus all the charm. He’s dizzy and ditzy, a mop-headed sorcerous dipstick who’s more a set of quirks than any attempt to build a character.

(His mushed-mouth line readings don’t help, either.)

“Fantastic Beasts” was a 2001 novel by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that purported to be the textbook written by Newt, a famed “magizoologist,” that Harry and the gang read their first year at Hogwarts. It wasn’t actually a tale of his adventures, more a creature compendium complete with doodles and scribbled notes.

Now Rowling takes her first stab at screenwriting to chronicle Newt’s adventures as a young man in 1920s New York City. David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies, is brought in for continuity.

Newt arrives in the Big Apple after a year abroad, studying and collecting magical creatures in the hopes of keeping them safe from wizards and witches who might do them harm out of fear. He carries a magical suitcase that he can step into and out of, and inside is his zoo full of critters. It’s enormous in there -- complete with different ecosystems for the various beasts’ needs -- but some of the naughtier ones have a tendency to escape.

Indeed, the entire manic story is about creatures getting loose from the suitcase as Newt and his companions race around to recapture them. Of course, they also deliberately free some others as circumstances demand, so the whole thing turns into a bizarre offshoot of “Ghostbusters.”

It’s stuff like this that drives me buggo. If Newt is a talented enough wizard to create a whole world inside a bag, why couldn’t he make a decent lock to keep them sealed in and safe? Also, since we know about wizards/witches living separately from the non-magical humans, how would these creatures exist in the wild next to regular critters without ever being discovered?

Almost as soon as Newt steps off the boat, his wayward creatures are blamed for several disturbing incidents around the city -- described as a dark wind with glowing white eyes tearing up buildings and streets. He’s hauled in by Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an interloping bureaucrat with the American magical authorities who’s been busted down rank for past transgressions. They’re briefly locked up by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security. With his martial bearing and contrasting black-and-grey hairdo, we just know he’s up to no good.

There are a lot of other characters in the mix -- too many to describe, and certainly too many for the filmmakers to adequately juggle.

There’s Porpentina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who’s got a Marilyn Monroe va-va-voom thing going on; she can read minds but isn’t bothered by the lustful thoughts men have about her. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, a good-natured No-Maj (that’s American for muggle) who dreams of starting a bakery and gets unwittingly roped into the fray so he can ask lots of questions and carry the exposition.

Loitering around the edges of the story are the Second Salemers, who want to bring back the witch trials with a vengeance. They’re led by Mary Lou Barebon (Samantha Morton), a terrifying puritanical figure who adopts urchins off the street, then uses and abuses them. Credence (Ezra Miller) is her eldest and creepiest charge.

There’s also the rich and powerful Shaw family, with Jon Voight as the newspaper magnate patriarch, whose reason for inclusion in the movie remains a mystery till the end. A loathsome goblin gangster (voice by Ron Perlman) makes a brief impression with his backward-bent fingers.

I spent most of my time watching “Fantastic Beasts” just trying to catch up. What was the name of that creature? What did Newt just say? What’s this about a girl he once loved? What exactly are these fearsome “obscurials” we keep hearing about?

It’s often said that the main challenge in adapting a book to the screen is paring it down to size. This movie’s got a novel’s worth of imagination, all spun together in a less-than-magical vortex.




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