Forget about magical creatures: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them could use some help finding itself. I can’t figure out what this movie is about. Worse, I don’t think director David Yates or screenwriter J.K Rowling even know what their movie is about. It’s barely even about fantastic beasts and where to find them, except to the degree that wizard naturalist Newt Scamander accidentally lets a few escape from his mobile collection lab–research library–menagerie in 1926 New York City and has to gather them back up again. But that’s not even what his book – a future Hogwarts required text – is about! (Or, rather, what it will be about: He’s still writing it here.)
I’m not even sure if Scamander – portrayed by Eddie Redmayne with his usual air of limp fecklessness – is the central character here, and I don’t think the movie is, either. No one who is as irresponsible and incompetent as Scamander is at something he’s supposed to be an expert in can be considered a “hero,” but that’s not the problem with him. (That’s a different problem altogether.) The problem is that his multiple irresponsible and incompetent acts of being so careless with rare and endangered magical creatures are almost entirely superfluous to the story. It’s a sideshow – almost literally – to the main plot, which is about dramatic and obvious magical attacks that are threatening to reveal the wizarding subculture in New York to the no-maj world. ("No-maj" is the American word for someone with no magic. It’s lacking that certain je ne sais quoi of muggle.) And Scamander is part of that only tangentially; even his supposed expertise that helps solve the mystery could have been covered by another character. Scamander is thinly drawn, barely even conceived as a person: “I annoy people,” he tells someone, but he doesn’t even do that, he’s such a blank. He brings nothing to the actual story.
In fact, that other character – disgraced wizard investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is trying to work her way back into the good graces of her boss, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) – does try to serve the same role, storywise, as Scamander does. Maybe she is the protagonist, except we learn almost nothing about her: The most important aspects of her part in the story we hear about only secondhand. And when we do finally hear those things, we might presume they have something to do with why she seems so sad all the time; immense sadness is her one quality as a character. But who knows!? If the movie knows, it’s not letting on.
Perhaps the protagonist is Credence (Ezra Miller), the young-adult son of anti-witch crusader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). She doesn’t know for sure that wizards are real, and she hates them anyway … but it’s gotta be tough not to have an actual target for her rage, so she takes it out on Credence and her other, younger children. Early on, the film seems to be trying to focus on him, but then it drifts away again. So never mind.
Maybe the protagonist is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the muggle – er, no-maj that Scamander gets entangled with. I’m not sure why he’s in the movie at all, unless he’s meant to be the character everyone else can explain things to (and hence to the audience). Except anything that needs to be explained about the differences between American magical culture and the British magical culture that the Harry Potter saga has already introduced us to is handled when Goldstein has to info-dump on Scamander. And everything about Scamander’s work that he explains to Kowalski could have been explained to Goldstein … and that would have made a lot more sense, too, since the movie thinks it is developing a relationship between Scamander and Goldstein, yet doesn’t quite manage that either.
There are way too many characters here, and I haven’t even mentioned Goldstein’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), or the subplot featuring newspaper magnate Henry Shaw (Jon Voight), his senator son Henry Jr. (Josh Cowdery) and his good-for-nothing son Langdon (Ronan Raftery). They have no reason to be here, and no meaningful purpose to serve. Perhaps they are going to become important later in what we’re now informed will be a five-movie saga, but that’s not good enough: They have to be necessary here. And they’re not.
I get the feeling that huge portions of the story were left on the cutting-room floor. Or maybe there was a very different story happening in Yates’ and Rowling’s heads than what actually ended up onscreen. There are numerous instances of weird lingering on characters’ faces as they glance to something we can’t see or express some inscrutable emotion that we are not able to connect to anything. Or maybe the movie is just an accidental disaster, like Scamander’s bungling: It is very oddly directed by Yates, with angles on locations that we’re clearly intended to draw some significance from, or strangely protracted interactions between characters that come to nothing. If there’s supposed to be subtext in any of this, we can never figure out what it is. One scene involving a magical pool of some sort of oily liquid leaves us utterly baffled as to what sort of powers that pool is meant to have. Characters sometimes do stupid things that make no sense, except they have to do them to set up the next bit. (One of those next bits is lifted directly from Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which is just inexcusable.) And the ending suggests a plot hole enormous enough to fly a Ukrainian Ironbelly dragon through.
As for the overt themes the story wants to be about? Again, Fantastic Beasts is all over the place. It feints toward being about small-mindedness and bigotry, not only via the anti-witch crusader Mary Lou but also in the wizards’ aversion to magical creatures. It suggests that perhaps politics and power are going to be a thing, what with the presence of that senator character and the machinations at the Magical Congress of the United States of America. (Alas, again, "MaCUSA" is nowhere near as charming a name as "Ministry of Magic." The cast seems to be tripping over the American magical terms where the British ones simply trip off the tongue.) Perhaps the single overarching problem of the movie is that it tries to be mysterious and suspenseful about the very things it should be confronting head-on.
There are a few nice moments here: The wizard speakeasy is fun, and the tour around Scamander’s menagerie is delightful. But setting is not story, and sometimes even the setting does not feel fully developed: This New York City seems almost deserted at times; there are numerous outdoor scenes with empty streets and sidewalks. Cute, funny creatures and flapper elf chanteuses are not enough to overcome the meandering mess, except for the most forgiving fans of Rowling’s world.