And Where to Find a Good Story
Look, let’s get one thing straight: I FUCKING love Harry Potter. I love the books, I love the films, I love going to the theme park, hell I love reading the wikis to find out more details about these various characters I adore. So, upon hearing J.K. Rowling was writing a screenplay for a prequel series featuring a minor character briefly mentioned in her books, I was rearing to see another tale set in the Wizarding World. So, the fact that I didn’t like this movie very much hurts my feelings far more than it hurts you…so please do not throw rocks at my windows for my opinion (they’re hurricane proof anyways suckas).
We got Eddie “Overact Asperger’s Syndrome” Redmayne in the role of Newt Scamander, a shy and timid British Wizard who loves magical creatures while living in the 1920s and coming to New York City for a mysterious reason. With him is a small magical suitcase housing several large magical creatures inside a la Pokémon. But things go awry when his suitcase gets mixed with a non-wizard named Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Newt’s screw up gets him in trouble with magical authority in America, namely an investigator named Tina (Katherine Waterson). She’s all riled up due to growing anti-wizard sentiment (from like three people) and the Wizarding community is afraid of a new creature lurking the streets exposing their secrets. A creature that magical investigator Percvial Graves (Colin Farrell) wants to utilize for his own purposes.
I’m being vague on plot because 1) Potter fans are already planning to crucify me, so I don’t need them to toss me off a waterfall as well for spoilers; and 2) the story’s a goddamn, convoluted mess. The plot lacks any coherent structure, it introduces about six or seven subplots setting up future sequels, it bumbles around aimlessly to feature heavy computer-generated action scenes, and there are no stakes. What I mean is that the film returns to the status quo introduced in the beginning of the film with our main character more or less in the same place he started off with no change to his history, personality, or even to his world. So all action rendered in this film could have been replaced with him slapping his butt cheeks for two hours straight and you would have had the same effect on the rest of the cast and the world at large. Contrast that with the Potter films which featured its main protagonist growing in age and personality with each successive film and the world around him being radically changed due to his and others’ actions. That’s exciting and interesting, two words I cannot use with this movie.
Further, the desire for sequels is so nakedly obvious that the film throws them at you with the subtlety of a catcaller driving on a highway. We get introduced to the concept that wizards and witches have taken their secrecy to paranoid degrees that wizards are not even trusted to marry non-magical persons. We also see a wealthy family with a son who is a US Senator, and they are skeptical magic exists; but due to a tragedy that befalls them, they suddenly believe magic is a true threat to their world. And on top of that, we find out that something happened to our main character that him expelled from school and that something affected his relationship with a woman we never encounter at all in this movie. And on top of all THAT, we get allusions to a big bad wizard murdering people…but you never see this wizard kill a lot of people (you HEAR about how much of a badass he is but he is never SEEN as a badass). You see what they’re doing? They’re sequel baiting like a motherfucker, taking up huge swathes of time that could be spent on building the main story. This didn’t happen in the old film series where tiny clues were left in the background for the Rowling and the filmmakers to call back in succeeding installments to explain what the hell is going on.
Look, I hate comparing this film to the other Harry Potter films, but that’s because those films worked damn well and because Warner Brothers is hellbent on creating franchises out of their old properties to compete with Disney (and therefore satisfy their hate boner for the Mouse). So the fact that these filmmakers couldn’t learn any lessons from over a decade of making these movies is disappointing from a critical perspective. Most criminally of all, this film adds nothing new in terms of the story of the Wizarding World because this film ends with a reveal that clues you in that the next FOUR sequels (yes they’re already in production) are going to be the exact same shit as the first eight films with a “dark lord” threatening the magical and non-magical worlds. Also the villain reveal (done through some straight up Scooby-Doo antics), features a casting decision that made me whisper “are you fucking kidding me” in the theater.
Maybe this story wouldn’t have been so bad if your main character wasn’t so goddamn insufferable. What doesn’t work about Newt Scamander is twofold: the character himself and the actor, Eddie Redmayne. Newt’s an absolute passive hero that rarely takes initiative and events in the film are driven by the action of others rather than him. He only serves to provide a giant deus ex machina in the very end of the film to restore everything back to “normal”…even though several people are now dead because of the events of the film. You don’t get to know Newt very much either, hell you get way more characterizations from nearly every supporting cast member, and the only thing I can think of to describe Newt is that he’s shy and awkward. Nothing else, and that’s a huge problem for the character we’re planning on spending FIVE freaking films with (no I’m not going to stop emphasizing how ridiculous it is that we’ve already planned multiple sequels out of this mediocrity).
Look, Harry Potter wasn’t the most competent protagonist but he was hardly idle. He had a major guilt and messiah complex that was frequently abused by his antagonists, he was awkward around girls but he learned to get over his bullshit, and he was fiercely loyal to his friends. See what I did there? I was able to give you a very strong description of this character’s personality; the more you say about a character, the more well-defined they are. I can’t think of many personality traits to describe Newt Scamander because the movie doesn’t LET you know him through the fact he has significantly less dialogue than everyone else and he doesn’t have anything interesting to say when the focus is on him. What makes him even more infuriating is that you can see his influences are strongly reminiscent of Doctor Who, what with a “quirky” adventurer who travels around in a little object that’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside while dragging along someone the hero can be awesome around.
But if the filmmakers wanted Doctor Who, then they should have just casted any odd actor who’s played the role. There’s no shame in that, hell what do you think attracted Marvel to Benedict Cumberbatch for Doctor Strange? Anything would be better than Eddie Redmayne, who’s stitled delivery made wish I could cast Crucio on his foppish ass, then leave him to suffocate in the Sahara as ironic revenge for making me thirsty for a better actor. Yeah I know that was a stretch, but at least I was fucking trying with that diss compared to Redmayne, who just fucking looked bored to be there. With this and Jupiter Ascending (I will never tire of reminding people of his batshit role there), he has demonstrated he really doesn’t know how to work off a green screen and provide a proper emotion at the right time. But even when he’s not playing opposite of creatures that aren’t there, he’s completely inert in heavy scenes that require him to give an emotional response involving betrayal and the death of a child he cared for. And THOSE scenes should have been easy for Mr. “I won an Academy Award for pantomiming a mental illness.” So the fact I felt nothing and was a little confused by what the hell was going on during these moments does not speak well for Eddie.
Redmayne’s cockup is especially infuriating when you take a look at the rest of the cast who are all acting their asses off. Seriously, when the film ISN’T focused on Newt, you can see the film come alive again once it’s free of its lame ass hero. Particularly of a note is Dan Fogler as Jacob, a non-magical person (would be called “muggle” in England, but in America he’s called a “no-maj”) who gets swept up in Newt’s quest to get back his creatures. Fogler clearly demonstrates a lot of fun with this movie by showing a wide-eyed fascination with the Wizarding World and his excitement and wonder mirrors our own as he witnesses more and more magical creatures and the abilities of wizards and witches. Further, he’s got an “adorkable” romance going on with Queenie (Alison Sudol), a mind-reader who equally demonstrates unique character traits and comes across as charming to Jacob and the audience. So their flirtations are cute and they make me resent Redmayne more because I’m not spending as much time with these likable characters. There’s even an angle to make their relationship more interesting since magical and no-maj marriages are illegal (oh but it’ll likely be kept for a sequel as opposed to what we have right freaking now).
Hell, even Katherine Waterson shows off some chops as a former magical investigator, desperate to reclaim her former glory by trying to arrest Scamander for unleashing his creatures. There’s nuance to her character, and she clearly exhibits far more heroic tendencies than Newt does, and contributes far more to the climax than our supposed hero. Even Collin Farrell showed up to work as an obviously villainous character, but his calm and collected demeanor made me want to see more of as well. Which is why the ending pissed me off severely (calm down, I’m not spoiling anything even though I fucking should). And I’ll give props to Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone who has to deal with physical abuse at the hands of his mother while at the same introducing an intriguing concept to the lore of Harry Potter.
All of these characters offer glimpses into what could make this new franchise work because they are all rooted in the mystery of the Wizarding World. The more you venture into this movie, the more you want to learn about this world and how it operates. And an opportunity to dive into the ecosystem of the magical world would make for some interesting world building as all the science to it was kept primarily in the background of the seven Harry Potter books. But to do it, you need to give us some amazing special effects and a tour guide who’s positively ecstatic to show you this strange world.
But this movie screws up both ingredients majorly. I know I ragged on the last film of director, Davis Yates, for some really fake looking apes; but the magical creatures on display here look like ass. Not the designs, those are fine, I’m talking about how these creatures look opposite the actors. Maybe I’m being hard on the movie because I can tell what’s fake and what isn’t, but when entire scenes are built around these creatures, you HAVE to make them look amazing or the audience is going to catch on.
Finally, the way Newt Scamander is written just doesn’t work. In the Harry Potter books, most wizards are terrified of fantastical creatures because of how dangerous they are, so usually the most peculiar wizards and witches like to examine them. Characters like Hagrid and Luna Lovegood adored the life of Newt Scamander because of his love for these oddities, even though they didn’t quite know how to share their passion in the best ways. So I was imagining Scamander as some Steve Irwin type who annoys people with just how giddy and excited he is over these obviously dangerous monsters, but he would confide to his friends in private how much he worries about the animals. That makes way more sense and would be much more fun to watch than this nebbish tool.
Now look, I’ve mentioned the rest of the cast and the creature designs as positives, so I’ll add that some of the action scenes were well done even if I didn’t care about our main protagonist. Even the climax has a thrilling chase aspect to it, utilizing a magical ability that was barely used in the original Harry Potter films as intriguing way to get around. There are also scenes strongly remind me of Pokémon with trying to profile how to capture these various creatures and how to tame them to assist the main characters with whatever they need to do. It was clear there was plenty of imagination on hand to create interesting visuals but there’s just not enough of a good story for me to latch onto. The Harry Potter books and films are going to always stick out in my mind years from now because I cared so much about these characters and their strange world that I wanted to get lost in. And for fans of this world, this movie delivers exactly that.
But that’s not enough for me if I don’t have an intriguing story or likable characters that I want to follow. While Jacob, Tina and Queenie are all interesting tour guides, this new film series has chosen the worst possible character to follow in this new chapter of the Harry Potter lore. This movie is more disappointing to me than anything else because the elements I like are truly great but the elements I don’t are absolutely central to this new direction for the franchise. So I’m giving this a very high…