A few years back, having brought the “Harry Potter” series to a successful conclusion, Director David Yates boldly declared he would be making a new “Doctor Who” movie, with a new actor in the role and a new continuity, separate from the long-running TV series. Then showrunner Steven Moffat shut that shit right down and Yates went off to lick his wounds, abandoning his plans to make a film version of “Doctor Who”.
Now, after a reasonably entertaining diversion to darkest Africa in the unrepentantly old fashioned “The Legend Of Tarzan”, Yates is back in the director’s chair and back in the Potterverse to bring us the wholly original adventures of an enigmatic and eccentric frock-coated Englishman who travels the world with a mysterious box that’s bigger on the inside.
When Hogwarts dropout Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures, he has no way of knowing that he’s stumbled into the middle of a tense political stand-off as tensions rise between the magical and non-magical world due to increasing incidents of dark, destructive magic. When his suitcase is accidentally mixed up with a local muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), he finds himself fighting off MACUSA (Magical Congress Of The United States Of America) aurors and racing against time to rescue his escaped menagerie.
J K Rowling’s return to the wizarding world of Harry Potter moves the action back some ninety years and across the Atlantic, transplanting the story with an understanding of American history and culture which speaks of a couple of hours spent flicking through Wikipedia. Nearly every 1920s/ American cliché available is dusted off and given a quick dusting of magical glitter before being trotted out to bind the disjointed story elements together. Rowling’s first screenplay, it’s an uneven and patchwork affair, jamming together a rather light-hearted slapstick monster mash around roaring Twenties New York with a pitch black tale of religious zealotry, racial tensions, terrorism and political divisions and a death penalty scene which would feel more at home in a horror movie. The change in setting exposes some of the frailties of the fictional world Rowling set up in the original Harry Potter novels. The wizarding world, while relatively contained to the cosy environment of the UK holds up reasonably well but when you take it transatlantic, some of the tenets of the world start to look a little bit shaky. Throw in a handful of half-thought through adaptations to make everything a bit more American and it starts to fall apart.
Most of the stuff with Newt chasing his creatures around is frothy, lightweight fun which merrily takes up time while doing little to advance the substance of the story. Unfortunately it takes up the lion’s share of the running time which means the meatier part involving the Director of the Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and his dealings with a family of anti-magical religious fundamentalists in a quest for a powerful source of dark magic while diverting the MACUSA investigation is underdeveloped and rushed. It’s fitting as Rowling enters her Lucasian period that she’s made sure her prequels contain a few pointless and tedious council deliberations as well.
Performance wise, Fogler and Farrell are the MVPs here, with Ezra Miller also adding some much needed creepiness to the movie’s blandly beige palate. Redmayne performance and his usual physical mannerisms are at their most irritating during the first hour of the movie, a sleepy, shy mix of Matt Smith’s Doctor and a medicated “Four Weddings” era Hugh Grant. Perhaps he just felt – justifiably – embarrassed by some of the clunky dialogue the script forced upon him to deliver and listen to. Yates’ direction – when not assuming the audience is stupid – is leaden and obvious, preferring to let the CGI do the talking, especially in an uninspired and derivative finale which features 2016’s umpteenth diffuse CGI particle monster. There’s no wonder and very little magic on show, the characters are superficial and their motivations ill-defined while the use or non-use of magic is breathtakingly arbitrary and deeply illogical. It may be that many of the non-sequiturs, dead ends or throwaway moments will yet be redeemed or retrospectively enhanced by future instalments of this now-planned-as-five movie series but with Rowling and Yates both confirming they will be respectively writing and directing the next four movies it’s hard not to look at them as settling into a passionless creative marriage of lucrative convenience.