The wonders never cease in J.K. Rowling’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Or maybe it just feels that way.
Two hours and thirteen minutes of Rowling’s endless introductions of new critters, new magic tricks and new wizarding world nomenclature — buttressed by the best effects money can buy — and they can’t figure out how to gracefully end it.
More is not always better, something even the Great J.K. seems to have never figured out. She took over screenwriting duties here, and it turns out her favorite amongst all the wizard movies were the excruciating first couple, those directed by Christopher Columbus, who was too timid to “leave anything out.”
Brtitish TV veteran David Yates is the Designated Harry Potter Picture Director now, appreciated for his efficiency and the fact that nobody else is beating down his door seeking his services or “style.” No, gloom by itself is not a style. Ask Tim Burton.
It’s a more adult (ish) film, owing to the general lack of children, the intensity of the violence and the sex appeal of the casting. Perhaps some adults can lose themselves in this world, reveling in the magic, plumbing for Rowling’s themes and deeper meaning. Not me.
“Beasts” is based on Rowling’s “textbook” to the world she created and populated, allegedly a work Harry Potter and his classmates would have to memorize if they were to master and understand Nifflers, Mooncalves and too many others to list — or bother trying to spell — here.
The author/researcher/ magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has come to New York in the Roaring 20s with a briefcase full of beasts and a secret mission.
But America is a paranoid place, thanks to the “New Salemers,” an anti-witch league run by orphan-abuser Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). Which is why it’s such a disaster when Newt’s creatures — a few of them — escape. An investigator wizard from the American version of the various Ministries we saw in the Hogwarts films spies Newt’s violations of “The Statute of Secrecy” and brings him in to a vast baroque bureaucracy where a huge, ornate meter tracks the “threat level” to wizards from the “Nomag’s,” as the Americans so clumsily name the Muggles.
But Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston of “Steve Jobs”) has been demoted and can’t get the attention of her stylish, vulpine boss (Colin Farrell). So she resolves to help Newt, figure out what to do with a “Nomag” (Really, J.K.?) baker named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who has stumbled upon their universe and round up the missing beasts.
It’s a slack film, filled with long scenes of gawking at this four-winged eagle or that platypus/puppy with magpie (thieving) tendencies. The worst Potter movies do this, ad nauseum.
Characters who can dash hither and yon with the whisk of a wand are always walking walking walking through the recreated (digital and otherwise) New York sets. We’re treated to epic scenes of monstrous mayhem, and not just by the Fantastic Beasts. There’s something/someone else loose in the city, perhaps tied to the missing villain Grindelwald, who dominated the pages of various wizard newspapers in the opening credits.
Alison Sudol charmingly vamps it up as Porpentina’s sister, Queenie, a genuine flapper, a mind-reader and a bit of a bombshell. So yeah, she knows what you’re thinking, guys. Jon Voight is a nomag newspaper publisher hell-bent on getting his senator son into the White House.
And Ron Perlman growly- voices a shady elvish character in a bar.
But this is Redmayne’s picture, and he takes pains to ensure every shot has his hair flopped forward, his head cocked quizzically to one side and his eyes opened to maximum twinkle. It’s like an audition to be the new Doctor Who, only there’s no hint of danger to him.
There are laughs, and the insertion of a person alien to this world (Kowalski) makes for lots of opportunities that funnyman Fogler (“Balls of Fury”) makes the most of. But even those moments are drawn out past their punchline. The chases are routine, the supporting characters mostly colorless and the color palette all grey and wintry.
Which leaves us with Rowling’s subtexts — about inclusion, tolerance, protecting your world from intolerance, inclusion, understanding and preserving endangered species. Edgy content in our deplorable Brexit age.
There are no doubt millions upon millions — most of them children — desperate to re-immerse themselves in Rowling’s creation, and for those first few minutes of “Fantastic Beasts,” when Newt makes his way onto Ellis Island and John Williams’ famous theme wafts through the soundtrack, I was with them.
And that first peek inside Newt’s suitcase is a bit of a dazzler.
But as “Beasts” hit the 90 minute mark, then the 120 minute one, I was done and there’s a good chance you will be, too. “Fantastic” or not, there are only so many beasts worth finding, and they hardly add up to a movie on their own.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight
Credits:Directed by David Yates, script by J.K. Rowling. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 2:13