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D: David Yates / 133m

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight, Kevin Guthrie, Johnny Depp

There are some movies that come along and you immediately think: shameless cash-in. Or just: really? Some movies try to be smart and come at a franchise from a different angle, seeking to retain the original fanbase but at the same time giving them something newer, something related but not quite as familiar. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one such movie, an attempt by J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. to squeeze another series of movies out of the Potterverse, and justifying doing so by setting it in the 1920’s (1926 to be precise). Add the fact that what was once meant to be a trilogy will now be a quintet, and you should have a pretty good idea of the motivation in making this new series in the first place.

Which is understandable on a business/financial level, but not on an artistic or creative one. Warner Bros and J.K. Rowling are entitled to make whatever movies they like, but where the Harry Potter saga was clearly that: a saga with an over-arching plot and main storyline, Fantastic Beasts… looks and feels very much like a stand-alone movie that Rowling et al hoped would be successful enough to warrant further entries. Well, financially, it has been – $814,037,575 according to boxofficemojo – but on closer inspection, there are problems that no amount of magical skill can deal with. Partly because of Rowling’s script (her first), and partly because of Yates’ direction. Both lack the credibility needed to make the movie appear better than it is. Rowling knows her wizarding world but this time around she doesn’t have as compelling a story to tell as she did with Harry Potter.

One of the problems with Rowling’s approach is the character of Newt Scamander (Redmayne), a protege of a certain future headmaster of Hogwarts (“Now… what makes Albus Dumbledore… so fond of you?”). Newt is possibly the most under-developed character in the entire Potterverse. As played by Redmayne he’s a closed book that the viewer never gets to know or appreciate, and Rowling never attempts to make him anything other than a floppy-fringed creature collector with all the social skills of a man in a coma. Redmayne has no chance against this, and he ambles and mumbles his way through the movie giving a performance that he looks and feels uncomfortable with. Let’s hope that future installments give us the chance to get to know him better, otherwise he’s going to remain a pedantic nerd whose dialogue consists largely of exposition.

Then there’s the plot itself, which involves a multitude of characters, all of whom waltz around each other in inter-connected ways that don’t add up and which don’t further the nonsensical narrative in any convincing way. We’re alerted at the start to a wizard-gone-bad called Gellert Grindelwald (Depp). Forewarned of his evil nature we wait patiently for him to appear properly only to find that he’s not part of the storyline (at least not in the way we expect). Instead we’re prodded back and forth between Newt and MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) agent Tina Goldstein (Waterston), or eavesdrop on the lives of the Barebone family, whose matriarch, the forever-adopting Mary Lou (Morton), is head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group seeking to expose the wizarding world for no particular reason other than that’s the motive Rowling gives them for existing. There’s a sub-plot involving a young child that may or may not be the source of a devastating magical creature called an Obscurus (of which naturally, Newt has some experience), and there’s a No-Maj (US slang for Muggle), would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), who gets involved thanks to an old-fashioned suitcase switch that only happens in the movies.

There’s more – way more – with Rowling trying to cram in enough incidents for the planned series as a whole, but mostly the movie revolves around Newt’s search for some of the beasts in the title, the ones who manage to escape the suitcase he keeps them in. All these things and again, way more, serve only to make the movie a piecemeal adventure that flits from scene to scene in its attempts to tell a coherent, and more importantly, interesting story. Too much happens for reasons beyond the skill of Rowling to explain, and while a handful of the performances rise above the constraints of the script – Fogler’s, Sudol as Tina’s Legilimens sister Queenie, Miller as the tortured Clarence Barebone – they aren’t enough to rescue the movie as a whole.

Which leads us to Yates, whose direction isn’t as bold or as confident as it was with Harry Potter parts five through eight (and who is attached to the rest of this series). Here, Yates is clearly a director for hire, and if he had any input into the tone or feel of the movie then it looks to have been dismissed with a wave of Rowling’s pen. The movie lacks for energy in its many action scenes, and any attempts at corralling the wayward script is lost in a welter of special effects, many of which aren’t that impressive (a common fault with movies set in the Potterverse). Yates’ skill as a director is missing here and scenes that should have an emotional impact pass by as blandly as the rest. Ultimately what’s missing is the sense of awe and wonder the audience should be experiencing at seeing these fantastic beasts, and from being allowed to explore this new/old (you decide) era in wizarding history. That the movie never achieves this is disappointing, and doesn’t bode well for the remaining four movies coming our way.

Rating: 5/10 – not the most auspicious of starts to a franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is by-the-numbers moviemaking that doesn’t make the most of its fantasy trappings or its Twenties New York setting (it literally could have been set anywhere and it wouldn’t have made a difference to the story or the characters); Rowling shoehorns in as much as she can but can’t quite manage to make any of it as exciting or significant as she did with the boy wizard, all of which leaves the movie looking and sounding like a cynical exercise in milking further dividends from a previously successful franchise. (25/31)