Warner Bros., 11.18.2016
Directed by David Yates
Written by J.K. Rowling
I fell asleep in the middle of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This did not happen by accident – at some point while the characters were wandering around inside a magical suitcase, I figured, “I didn’t get much sleep last night, and I’m more interested in solving that problem than I am in watching these folks solve theirs.”
I had spent more than an hour with Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander as he chased his mischievous escaped monsters through New York City. By that point the only thing I’d learned about him was that while he’d traveled the world collecting magical creatures and invested in an enchanted suitcase with a stadium-sized interior to house them, he hadn’t bothered buying one with a lock on it to keep them from getting out.
There’s a concept in screenwriting called a ‘Save the Cat’ moment, which dictates that when we first meet our protagonist, we need to see them do something, lickety-split, that shows us as an audience what makes this person more interesting than all the other people in the movie. It’s Indiana Jones sensing that one of his lackeys is going to shoot him and bullwhipping the gun out of his hand, or Ripley coming out of a 57-year coma, broken and jaded, and then lighting up at the sight of her orange tabby cat. (”Jonesy! Come here, you stupid cat!”)
Fantastic Beasts hasn’t got that. Newt’s suitcase – henceforth known as The Newtcase – is his most interesting characteristic, but it doesn’t really say anything about the kind of person he is. How did this guy capture all these creatures in the first place if he lacks the basic competence to keep them from escaping? What is it about New York City that prompts all the monsters to finally break loose? Eddie Redmayne is a great actor – not that you needed me to tell you that – but shy, boyish charm alone isn’t enough to get me jazzed about following this guy around for two hours. Eventually there’s some murmurings about an old flame at Hogwarts who spurned him, but by the time the movie got around to this bit of character development I was already halfway to dreamland.
For my money, the most interesting stuff in the movie is on the margins. MACUSA – American wizards’ answer to the Ministry of Magic – is a backwards organization that bans wizards and Muggles (No-Majs, as they’re known stateside) from commingling and metes out death sentences at the drop of a hat. Among the No-Majs, religious extremists are preying upon people’s fears to drum up hysteria about the existence of wizards and magic. Plus, there’s a speakeasy run by a gangster goblin. The conflicts between the forces in this colorful world were a lot more interesting to me than The Newtcase and its residents. But that’s not what the book was about, I guess.
A week after the fact, the most memorable thing to me about Fantastic Beasts is that Dan Fogler, who plays Newt’s bewildered No-Maj sidekick Jacob, bears a remarkable resemblance to John Candy. I’ve long believed that humanity at large lost its way following John Candy’s untimely death in 1994, so Fogler's performance gave me hope that we are witnessing the Second Coming of Candy. But that was about the extent of the enchantment I picked up from this adventure.