You’d think that a pop movie that features a presidential hopeful who appears to be building his campaign around the identification and presumed persecution of a specialized class of people might at least have some serendipitous currency right now. But Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s newest salvo in a career spent writing mostly about the world of wizards, exists so resolutely outside of salience and so doggedly within the comfort of escapism that even witch hunts, underground railroads, self-righteous religious fundamentalism, parallel societies with their own discrete presidents, and harbingers of world war are all presented with the same weightlessness of anything under Hermione Granger’s levitation spell: “Wingardium leviosa.”
Too timid to serve as a respectable time-killer, the film introduces Newt Scamander, a wizard-cum-zoologist who collects and protects endangered bizarro world animals in his suitcase. Fresh from skipping the pond to New York, the stiff-upper-lipped Brit Newt quickly loses his magical case in an accidental swap with one belonging to a factory worker no-maj (American for “muggle”) who aspires to be a baker. (In Rowling’s admittedly period-bound America, even the bluest of collars aspires to pixie-dusted confectionery.)
It’s a little bit difficult to see exactly how the cases get mixed up, as director David Yates spends the film’s first half seemingly unaware of the typical rules of screen direction and editing on motion. While miles away from a Yasujirō Ozu film, Fantastic Beasts opens with a disorienting spatial feel unusual for a mainstream blockbuster-to-be, as though the mere professionalism of blocking bodies and matching eye lines had broken down. Of course, when you’re working with a lead actor so hell-bent on avoiding eye contact as Eddie Redmayne, that may have been an inevitability. That, or else the responsibility of folding a whole new cast of characters into an already overdeveloped fictional universe left no time for such irrelevant formal concerns.
And so it is that each plot point rampages across the screen like another one of Newt’s destructive, rambunctious, but oh-so-clearly misunderstood creatures. Newt’s Jumanji calamity falls inconveniently amid a politically charged standoff between humans and witches, an environment just waiting for a catalyst along the lines of an Archduke Ferdinand assassination. Just when the witching community wants to keep as low a profile as they can manage, Newt’s macrocephalic rhinoceros (no, not Ionesco’s brand) goes on a pheromone-charged rampage through Central Park. Just when Puritanical scapegoaters are canvassing the streets with baseless pamphlets, Newt’s sticky-fingered platypus is picking pockets and robbing jewelry stores. And just as witches have gotten used to erasing the memories of the no-maj community who witness evidence of their existence, Newt befriends and is assisted in world-saving feats by one of the no-maj-iest of them all.
Yates proves again that he isn’t capable of mining whatever dramatic ironies can be found in Rowling’s templates, or finessing nuance from the bare essentials, as Alfonso Cuarón managed with the third Harry Potter film. One suspects he landed the gig of directing the final four film in that series by methodically not upsetting the apple cart—much in the same way Frank Darabont accepts Stephen King’s prose at face value. That may have serviced him well enough when he was protected by the Harry Potter series’s narrative arc. But the “Oh, and one more thing” desperation of Fantastic Beasts’s return to the well leaves Yates and everyone else involved high and dry.