The “Harry Potter” films are over but the J.K. Rowling Experience, it would seem, will go on and on. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the first of five projected films written directly for the screen by Harry’s literary creator. Its hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), is supposedly the author of a textbook on magic studied by good old Harry so these are prequels of a sort.
If the first film, directed by “Harry Potter” veteran David Yates, is any indication it’s going to be a long slug.
What’s best about the film is its design. Stuart Craig has created a stunningly rendered 1920s New York that feels almost a decade earlier in which X-Men like magic takes place — a bracing, time-warping juxtaposition that does work its own special magic. I loved watching all this just as my brain shifted into neutral to deal with what passes for a story.
Redmayne’s Scamander is an interesting enough figure — a rather shy, even awkward person more at home with his fantastic beasts than with humans; otherwise the characters here are vapid creations without any of the vigor or theatrical élan that made the Potter movies ingratiating.
The story itself is unwieldy, padded and almost entirely reliant upon CGI for forward momentum. Yates has his camera roam all over his New York sets to catch the next eruption of computer generated mayhem with only the thinnest of links between these episodes.
I doubt if very many frames of this movie would even exist were it not for CGI. That’s always the sign of a troubled screenplay that has little confidence in its own structure or characters.
Scamander arrives in New York with a suitcase that contains multitudes. You can stuff just about anything in there including Nifflers, Bowtruckles, Demiguises and other critters from the Rowling bestiary. People can disappear into it as well.
What it really is though is a crutch, a means for the screenwriter to make a ragged storyline without any sense of purpose move from place to place.
Anyway the suitcase’s single flaw is a faulty latch that allows Scamander’s critters to escape in Manhattan, wrecking havoc not only with its streets and skyline but upsetting the careful balance between an underground society of witches and magicians and the above ground of the “no-majs” — as in “no magic,” a term used here for American Muggles.
This brings the governing Magical Congress of the United States of America into play as they are in the midst of a battle with an extremist group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society. The MACUSA, as they are unfortunately called, includes Tina (a bland Katherine Waterston), a security officer with the group; Percival Graves (Colin Farrell, overacting once again), a shifty operative; and Tina’s Jazz Age sister, Queenie (a charming Alison Sudol), who can read minds to the annoyance of just about everyone she meets.
Caught up in the madness is a “no-maj,” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), a would-be baker who enters the story through an extremely contrived switch of suitcases.
It’s a full hour before the hero’s purpose in New York is fully clear. Meanwhile Yates and Rowling try to distract you with a nightclub scene full of weird humanoids that seems more likely in a “Star Wars” movie and a meaningless subplot involving a newspaper magnate (Jon Voight) and his ambitious though corrupt politician son.
Skirmishes break out and weird creatures trash much of Central Park and midtown but then, like magic, everything can be put back in its place. Which brings up one of the real buzzkills of this movie: there is no jeopardy for its characters.
Since magic can solve most problems and wiggle them out of all tight spaces and deathly confrontations, how can you ever feel they are imperiled?
It’s a shame this early in his now Oscar-annointed career to see Redmayne chasing not creatures but a paycheck. He’s quite good as far as that goes but his charmingly awkward boyishness is put to ill use in this empty role.
Four more? No, thanks.
Opens November 18, 2016 (Warner Bros.)
Production company: Heyday Films
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling
Producers: David Heyman, J.K. Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
Executive producers: Tim Lewis, Neil Blair, Rick Senat
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Stuart Craig
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Colleen Atwood
Editor: Mark Day
PG-13 rating, 132 minutes