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Review: ‘Beasts’ is a bit hollow but shows promise

  • WARNER BROS.

    Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston are out to find critters in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

***

(PG-13. 2:13)

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” protagonist Newt Scamander is amiable, sheepish and surprisingly capable — as if he’s trying to simultaneously channel Harry, Ron Weasley and Hermione from the “Harry Potter” series at the same time.

Eddie Redmayne’s performance is emblematic of a spinoff that clones the vibe of the “Potter” films — especially the latter ones — even as it aggressively distances itself from the Hogwarts world. It’s a safe, crowd-pleasing and frequently enchanting experience. But there’s also a sense that the filmmakers were locked in their own Azkaban-style prison, forced at wand-point to meticulously replicate a product that has become its own industry.

“Fantastic Beasts” previously existed as a Scamander-penned textbook in the Harry Potter universe, which was expanded into a J.K. Rowlings-penned faux manual in real life. From these spare guidelines, “Harry Potter” creator Rowlings will reportedly write at least five movies.

Redmayne is the first of many safe choices made in the “Fantastic Beasts” movie, which takes place in the 1920s, about 70 years before the events in the first “Harry Potter” book. The beast-wrangling wizard is introduced walking into Ellis Island, with a magical suitcase and its unreliable latch that conveniently launches most of the mischief in the film.

David Yates, who directed the final four installments of the “Harry Potter” films, also returns, already in an urgent “Deathly Hallows” mood. While “Fantastic Beasts” is a lively piece of cinema, it is also scary and frequently bleak. There will be no PG-rated Chris Columbus-directed chapters to allow young children to grow up with the films. Stay woke, kids. Pure PG-13 evil has already crossed the doorstep.

Scamander’s allies are a trio of adults: human comic relief Jacob (Dan Fogler), psychic Queenie (Alison Sudol) and overachieving witch Porpentia (Katherine Waterston). Scamander is sent to wrangle magical beasts, who are being spotted by the paranoid No-Maj crowd (that’s the American word for “muggle,” which is the Rowlings word for “humans with no special powers”). Colin Farrell is the surly director of the American version of Scamander’s British Ministry of Magic, charged with finding Newt.

The fact that we’re leaving about two-thirds of the plot out, and the exposition is still confusing, should bode poorly for the first half of “Fantastic Beasts.” And yet under the seasoned management of Rowlings and Yates, plot density isn’t a detriment. The movie feels like cramming for an examination from the coolest textbook, guided by the most engaging professor at the school.

Pre-Depression New York is cold and hard but oddly sanitized — more like a Harry Potter amusement park facsimile than an actual place. But it blends well with the goblins, house elves and brand-new beasts that run amok for most of the movie’s marathon 133-minute running time. A money-hoarding platypus thing, a lock-picking anthropomorphic seedling and a dragon that adapts to its environment are three of the more memorable creature designs.

The middle parts of “Fantastic Beasts” are the draggiest, when all the slapstick, chase scenes and whimsical smashing and breaking of things mask a lack of character development. A romance between Jacob and Queenie is particularly shallow and labored; hopefully both have smaller roles in future films. For a movie so long, none of our heroes travels very far.

But Rowlings, Yates and their crew recover by the end, which gathers some emotional momentum, even as it gets busier to watch. Through the noise and increasing flash of visual effects, “Fantastic Beasts” sticks its landing with a combination of sadness, fear, hope and beauty. (And effectively sets up the next film, which will have a new villain, and even higher stakes.)

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is neither the amazing new direction that many fans were hoping for, nor the bloated Peter Jackson “The Hobbit”-style disaster that some feared. It’s a solid first step into the magical world of the familiar. It’s escapist entertainment for crowds that prefer to know their destination in advance.

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