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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie review: reparo movens ad imaginem

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Forget about magical creatures: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could use some help finding itself, and in figuring out who its protagonist is.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the Harry Potter saga, love most of the movies
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of Eddie Redmayne
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Forget about magical creatures: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could use some help finding itself. I can’t figure out what this movie is about. Worse, I don’t think director David Yates or screenwriter J.K Rowling even know what their movie is about. It’s barely even about fantastic beasts and where to find them, except to the degree that wizard naturalist Newt Scamander accidentally lets a few escape from his mobile collection lab–research library–menagerie in 1926 New York City and has to gather them back up again. But that’s not even what his book — a future Hogwarts required text — is about! (Or, rather, what it will be about: he’s still writing it here.)

Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K Rowling don’t seem to know what their film is about.

I’m not even sure if Scamander — portrayed by Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, Jupiter Ascending) with his usual air of limp fecklessness — is the central character here, and I don’t think the movie is, either. No one who is as irresponsible and incompetent as Scamander is at something he’s supposed to be an expert in can be considered a “hero,” but that’s not the problem with him. (That’s a different problem altogether.) The problem is that his multiple irresponsible and incompetent acts of being so careless with rare and endangered magical creatures are almost entirely superfluous to the story. It’s a sideshow — almost literally — to the main plot, which is about dramatic and obvious magical attacks that are threatening to reveal the wizarding subculture in New York to the no-maj world. (No-maj is the American word for someone with no magic. It’s lacking in that certain je ne sais quoi of muggle.) And Scamander is part of that only tangentially; even his supposed expertise that helps solve the mystery could have been covered by another character. Scamander is thinly drawn, barely even conceived as a persontweet: “I annoy people,” he tells someone, but he doesn’t even do that, he’s such a blank. He brings nothing to the actual story.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), sufferer of BRF: Befuddled Resting Face

Newt Scamander, sufferer of BRF: Befuddled Resting Face.tweet

In fact, that other character — disgraced wizard investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston: Steve Jobs, Taking Woodstock), who is trying to work her way back into the good graces of her boss, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell: Winter’s Tale, Saving Mr. Banks) — does try to serve the same role, storywise, as Scamander does. Maybe she is the protagonist, except we learn almost nothing about her: the most important aspects of her part in the story we hear about only secondhand. And when we do finally hear those things, we might presume they have something to do with why she seems so sad all the time; immense sadness is her one quality as a character. But who knows! If the movie knows, it’s not letting on.

Perhaps the protagonist is Credence (Ezra Miller: Suicide Squad, Trainwreck), the young-adult son of anti-witch crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton:
Cosmopolis, John Carter). She doesn’t know for sure that wizards are real, and she hates them anyway… but it’s gotta be tough not to have an actual target for her rage, so she takes it out on Credence and her other, younger children. Early on, the film seems to be trying to focus on him, but then it drifts away again. So never mind.

Maybe the protagonist is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler: Barely Lethal, Europa Report), the muggle–er no-maj that Scamander gets entangled with. I’m not sure why he’s in the movie at all, unless he’s meant to be the character everyone else can explain things to (and hence to the audience). Except anything that needs to be explained about the differences between American magical culture and the British magical culture the Harry Potter saga has already introduced us to is handled when Goldstein has to info-dump on Scamander. And everything about Scamander’s work that he explains to Kowalski could have been explained to Goldstein… and that would have made a lot more sense, too, since the movie thinks it is developing a relationship between Scamander and Goldstein, yet doesn’t quite manage that either.

Cute, funny creatures and flapper elf chanteuses are not enough to overcome this meandering mess.

There are way too many characters here, and I haven’t even mentioned Goldstein’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the subplot featuring newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight: Woodlawn, Four Christmases), his senator son Henry Jr (Josh Cowdery), and his good-for-nothing son Langdon (Ronan Raftery). They have no reason to be here, and no meaningful purpose to serve. Perhaps they are going to become important later in what we’re now informed will be a five-movie saga, but that’s not good enough: they have to be necessary here. And they’re not.

I get the feeling that huge portions of the story were left on the cutting-room floor.tweet Or maybe there was a very different story happening in the heads of Yates (who directed four Harry Potter movies, including the two final Deathly Hallows films) and Rowling (with her first screenplay) than what actually ended up onscreen. There are numerous instances of weird lingering on characters’ faces as they glance to something we can’t see or express some inscrutable emotion that we are not able to connect to anything. Or maybe the movie is just an accidental disaster, like Scamander’s bunglingtweet: it is very oddly directed by Yates, with angles on locations that we’re clearly intended to draw some significance from, or strangely protracted interactions between characters that come to nothing. If there’s supposed to be subtext in any of this, we can never figure out what it is. One scene involving a magical pool of some sort of oily liquid leaves us utterly baffled as to what sort of powers that pool is meant to have. Characters sometimes do stupid things that make no sense, except they have to do them to set up the next bit. (One of those next bits is lifted directly from Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which is just inexcusable.) And the ending suggests a plot hole enormous enough to fly a Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon through.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Colin Farrell “You guys! My strongest mending charm is not working on our movie!”

“You guys! My strongest mending charm is not working on our movie!”tweet

As for the overt themes the story wants to be about? Again, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is all over the place. It feints toward being about smallmindedness and bigotry, not only via the anti-witch crusader Mary Lou but also in the wizards’ aversion to magical creatures. It suggests that perhaps politics and power are going to be a thing, what with the presence of that senator character and the machinations at the Magical Congress of the United States of America. (Alas, again, MaCUSA is nowhere near as charming as Ministry of Magic. The cast seems to be tripping over the American magical terms where the British ones simply trip off the tongue.) Perhaps the single overarching problem of the movie is that it tries to be mysterious and suspenseful about the very things it should be confronting head on.tweet

There are a few nice moments here: the wizard speakeasy is fun, and the tour around Scamander’s menagerie is delightful. But setting is not story, and sometimes even the setting does not feel fully developed: this New York City seems almost deserted at times; there are numerous outdoor scenes with empty streets and sidewalks. Cute, funny creatures and flapper elf chanteuses are not enough to overcome the meandering mess, except for the most forgiving fans of Rowling’s world.

see also:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald movie review: the crimes of this movie, though…

red light 2 stars

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) | directed by David Yates
US/Can release: Nov 18 2016
UK/Ire release: Nov 18 2016

MPAA: rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate threat)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • agus

    It’s funny that British and international media don’t have problem what this movie is about but of course American critics have. As always.

  • agus

    We live in the world when average moviegoer has less problem with understanding the movies than critics, alike like political or economic journalist. It’s why the plots are more and more simplistic, particularly of American movies and it doesn’t matter if it’s summer blockbuster or Oscar contender.

  • Danielm80

    Citation needed.

  • Matt Clayton

    I saw the movie, read your review, and agree with it wholeheartedly. I feel that, 1) David Yates was the wrong person for this film and, 2) J.K. Rowling should’ve saved the MACUSA-No Maj intrigue for the second film. The movie becomes entertaining when Newt is actually catching these creatures, but the political intrigue with MACUSA, Mary Lou and the Second Salemers and Ezra’s character grinds the film to a screeching halt.

    The die-hard Potter fans in my 6 p.m. screening ate it up, but I have the feeling the WOM won’t be as good. We might see a second film out of this, but I think the whole five film arc JKR has planned out will be scuppered.

  • LaSargenta

    Ooooh. Grumpy, are we? ;-)

  • RogerBW

    I wonder whether this is another manifestation of the “cool moments” school of production: never mind whether it makes sense in terms of the story or character, this particular scene has someone doing a Cool Thing so we put it in.

    (Making up convincing-sounding slang is really hard; just ask Margaret “econowives” Atwood. “Muggle” was one that caught on, but that doesn’t mean Rowling can do it every time.)

  • I wish I understood what you were talking about. If I’m guessing correctly, you are mistaking “This movie is poorly structured and badly written” with “I didn’t understand the plot.”

    But if you think you understood the plot better than I did, perhaps you’d care to explain it to me. You have seen the film, right? Tell me how I’m wrong.

  • Yeah, there’s at least three movies worth of plot (and characters) here. If it had been solely about Scamander hunting down his escaped creatures, perhaps with the help of a muggle, that could have been fun and charming, and a nice introduction to the American magical culture. And then at the very end, someone from MaCUSA shows and says, “Oh, so *you’re* the idiot who let all these monsters out!” and that sets up the next movie.

  • But Rowling has been so wonderful with her invented names and words up till now: she is downright Dickensian with people names. But they’ve all been very British. Maybe American English sounds harsh and grating to her ears, and so that’s why her invented American words are harsh and grating.

  • Matt Clayton

    A simplified version of “Fantastic Beasts” would definitely be a far more enjoyable 90-100 minutes, that’s for sure.

    Also didn’t like Depp’s cameo as Grindelwald. Not a good casting decision.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    I enjoyed the characters here more – a lot more – than MaryAnn did. But she’s right that the plot kind of meanders all over, and there’s not real direction from Yates. For one, it takes way too long to get to the menagerie scene, which needed to happen before the 30 minute mark.
    But as I mention, I really like the characters, and am hopeful Rowling will find a story to tell with them.

  • Danielm80

    I’m wondering if some of the strange camera angles were chosen to set up 3D effects. I saw the movie in 3D IMAX and didn’t notice anything amiss with the angles. I agree with almost everything else you said in the review, FWIW, but still ended up loving the film to a ridiculous degree.

  • IntrepidNormal

    I feel like an American author would naturally be more skilled at making up American slang than an English one, and vice versa.

  • Albus

    You are a stupid fucking slut that doesn’t know a shit about the books or anything. I hope you die the most painful death preferably being raped by apes. And you should stop reviewing movies you are a slut and you should continue doing that business you fucking whore. Your face is like a girl who got raped by her daddy and uncle in a threesome and then they throw you to a gang of their friends so you can suck cock all night long. Bitch

  • Danielm80

    A quick reader poll: Which is a catchier tag line?

    (1.) “Your biast.”

    (2.) “I hope you die the most painful death preferably being raped by apes.”

  • Completely agree – I’ve been buzzed for this film for six months and saw it at a midnight viewing at Picturehouse on its opening night/day. I was so ready to love it and so dismayed to be bored out of my skull. There were too many pointless chases and too little peril for characters we cared about.

  • J.T. Dawgzone

    Wait, if the average moviegoer has less problem understanding movies, then why do the plots need to be more simplistic?

  • Patrick

    I agree with you 100%, MaryAnn. I had no emotional investment in any of the characters with the exception of Jacob Kawalski–you actually feel for the guy–something you don’t really do for Scamander or anyone else.

    I think I need to watch “Back to the Future” to cleanse may palate and see how a narrative is elegantly achieved.

  • Gadsden

    Great review – summed up my thoughts on this movie to a tee. Trust me folks, don’t waste your money – even if you are a hard core fan.

  • I can’t disagree with anything you said here but I still liked the movie a whole lot more than I was expecting to. Maybe I was just charmed by the aesthetic.

  • Amos Bahiri

    I took Latin for 4 years in grammar school but can’t figure out the “reparo movens ad imaginem”. I took it apart:
    reparare = to repair
    movere = to move
    imago/imaginis = [the] image
    So “I repair moving to the image”? I give up!

  • “Fix the movie [moving image].” It’s a play on the “reparo” spell, or mending charm, from the Harry Potter series. Though maybe it should have been “movens ad imaginem reparo.”

  • Tonio Kruger

    A lot of British English words sound just as harsh as American English words to my non-Anglo-Saxon ear — especially compared to their Spanish equivalents — and yet some of my favorite writers are British.

    However, that is an interesting theory of yours.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Where’s John Cleese’s “Latin instructor” character from Life of Brian now that we need him?

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