Quick, how much of the Harry Potter books/movies do you remember? How well steeped are you in the Deathly Hallows? Does the name Gellert Grindelwald mean anything to you? “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the return of the Harry Potter universe to the big screen, assumes that the viewer has instant recall of these various elements.

Grindelwald’s name flashes across newspaper headlines at the start of the movie along with a myriad of headlines indicating that bad things are afoot. Director David Yates (who directed four of the main Harry Potter movies) has the newspapers with their headlines and constantly-moving ads/photos whip by at speeds that prevent anything but the largest of them being read.

They are there to set the mood. They are also there so that, after the end credits roll, audience members for whom they meant nothing can look back at those headlines and know that was the moment the movie announced it wasn’t for them.

This isn’t to say that after all five of the planned movies are finished, a viewer won’t be able to go back and suss it all out for themselves, that “Fantastic Beasts” won’t, in retrospect, work for them. As a standalone, however, it will not and that, at the root, is the core of the issue with it.

The plot, essentially, boils down to this – Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), for reasons known only to him (and even after the movie I couldn’t really tell you why he was there, although I know it comes up) comes to New York with a suitcase stuffed full of fantastic beasts. What that suitcase doesn’t have is a good way of staying closed. This is ludicrous as Scamander has magic and could just magic it closed, especially as he knows that the beasts want out, but if he did the logical, obvious, thing there wouldn’t be a movie (and there is). Beasts escape the poorly closed suitcase and Scamander runs into trouble with the locals, both magical, in the form of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and not magical, in the form of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), as Newt tries to get the beasts back.

Tina used to be an Auror (a term not defined in the movie because, again, if you don’t know your Harry Potter, this isn’t for you) but lost her job for overzealous pursuit of anti-witchcraft folks running around New York. Still, she thinks she can get back in with the Aurors by bringing in Newt for using magic in front of non-magic types. The Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), and President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, Seraphina Piquery (Carmen Ejogo) disagree though and Tina winds up working with Scamander to recover beasts, hoping it will help her standing.

That is all well and good. Things only get worse though with the character of Graves who has little character of which to speak and that isn’t good as he’s one of the main bad guys. Until the very end of the movie one can’t even fathom why Graves is doing what he’s doing; what his goal might be with his shenanigans. Then, when it does become clear it only does so if (say it all with me now) you are steeped in the world of Harry Potter. Without that knowledge, understanding why Graves does what he does is indecipherable and that is a major flaw in the film.

Some of the issue is unquestionably weak writing (the script is from J.K. Rowling herself). It isn’t just that it trades heavily on Harry Potter knowledge either, it goes beyond that. In order to teach the audience what a “No-Maj” (American for “Muggle”) is, Newt professes to not having heard the word before. Later in the movie, at what appears to be a worldwide conference of magicians, “No-Maj” is bandied about without issue. The incredibly intelligent Newt has, seemingly, just been living under a rock.

Jon Voight appears in the movie as a wealthy newspaper man, but in a story that goes utterly nowhere. Zoë Kravitz appears in a picture frame and nowhere else. With four sequels already announced, it instantly makes one wonder if they’ll play a larger role in a movie down the line (Kravitz’s character’s last name is Lestrange, which makes it sound more likely that she’ll be back… something you can guess if you know Harry Potter).

Ezra Miller takes on the role of Credence, a ward of the anti-witch leader. Miller sinks entirely into this role, offering a quite shy portrayal. The problem here is that Yates never seems to capture any more than his slinking away from the camera and those around him. Miller is always only mostly there; he is never quite fully present. Credence, like Graves, is barely a character (he may be best described as a prop).

That all being said, there are elements of the movie that are enjoyable. Returning to the world of magic is worthwhile and there are definitely fun moments – and some of these definitely do include Harry Potter references… just references that aren’t entirely essential to the plot. There is a twinkle in Redmayne’s eyes as well, and that is indeed fantastic. He makes for a solid off-kilter wizard. Less good is that he has a tendency to swallow his words, making some of what he says indecipherable (this is especially problematic if he’s offering the name of some sort of fantastic beast, a name which doesn’t exist in our world).

The most engaging performance is offered by Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein, a mind reader and the sister of Tina. She falls for Jacob and imbues the movie with a sense of heart and happiness that is, well, magical. And, truly, much of “Fantastic Beasts” is magical. There are wondrous moments and some true happiness to be gleaned from the whole affair. But, there are plots that go nowhere or make no sense or are impossible to understand if you’re not already a sizable fan. The uninitiated will get some of the fun, but leave vaguely bewildered and the start of a franchise ought to be better than that.

 

 

 

photo credit: Warner Bros.