Movie Review: “The School of Magical Animals,” Hogwarts-lite from Germany

The stakes that characters are struggling for in a story matter, even in kid’s literature. And you can’t wholly appreciate what the children and adults are battling over in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world until you read or see a knockoff where the consequences of failure are much lower.

In “School for Magical Animals,” a couple of kids, arbitrarily gifted with a talking and cunning “detective” fox and a worldly old talking tortoise, are trying to figure out who is stealing stuff — including the tower clock at the entrance — from their school.

Based on a novel by the German kid-lit author Margit Auer, one installment of an award-winning series and turned into a (half-hearted) musical, the film version is never more than an account of far less “fantastic beasts” with no effort at all exerted to “find them.”

Milan Peschel plays Mortimer Morrison, an oddball seeker of “magical animals,” traveling Europe in a quirky vintage circus bus, quizzing a bear (no dice) and other critters with his magpie sidekick. Once he stumbles into some properly magical wildlife, there’s nothing for it but to visit a postcard-worthy Alpine town to hand them out, with the aid of a bewitching teacher (Nadja Uhl) who takes a job at the local school.

Ida (Emilia Maier) is the cute new “ginger” in class, destined to be bullied having just moved there with her hairdresser single mom (Marleen Lohse). The school is having a rash of thefts, with the martinet headmaster (Justus von Dohnányi) and hapless handyman (Heiko Pinkowski) at a loss as to who’s doing it.

Ida is given/teamed-up with Rabbat the Fox. Equally bullied Benni (Leonard Conrads) gets the tortoise, who sails up on a raft of her own design.

Unhappy cool kid Jo (Loris Sichrovsky) is enlisted in their cause. But no other kids are gifted by magical animals, prompting protests.

A little song and dance later — pop and hip hop with German touches (the film is dubbed into English) — and we’ve learned not to fall for the obvious, not to judge a book by its cover, all that good stuff.

And the wily “detective” fox has figured out “I can’t do this on my own.”

Dominik Giesriegl cooked-up the pleasantly forgettable music.

The kids are cute, and the student body’s about as diverse as you’d expect from a German children’s movie filmed in Austria — not very. Only the leads are developed as characters to any degree, with generic blonde mean girls doing most of the bullying.

But the lower-than-low stakes render this adaptation barely serviceable as a harmless kiddie time-killer. There’s just too little going on, and dance numbers with middling choreography and chattering digital critters don’t change that.

Rating: PG, for mild language, peril and thematic elements

Cast: Emilia Maier, Leonard Conrads, Nadja Uhl, Heiko Pinkowski, Loris Sichrovsky, Marleen Lohse and Justus von Dohnányi

Credits: Directed by Gregor Schnitzler, scripted by Viola Schmidt, John Chambers, Arne Nolting and Alexander Dydyna, based on a novel by Margit Auer. A Blue Fox release.

Running time: 1:34


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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