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24 Nov 2016

A Beastly Brew: While It's Great to Return to the Harry Potter Universe, This Prequel's Only Purpose Is to Set Up More Films

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Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

I was a little late to the Harry Potter party. I didn’t like the first movie (which was basically a bunch of kids who didn’t know how to act yet participating in a big costume pageant), but thought the second was really good, and loved the third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The series got a little inconsistent after Azkaban, but the character of Harry Potter rose above the mediocre moments delivered by director David Yates, who helmed the final four movies.

Well, Yates is back to helm the next chapter in the Potter Universe, a prequel called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the title of a textbook Harry studied at Hogwarts. The film takes place well before Harry’s time, as the world of wizardry comes to New York City in the 1920s.

Unfortunately, Beasts struggles with some of the same problems the first Harry Potter film had: It looks good sometimes, but the screenplay never takes hold. It’s all over the place, with no real sense of purpose other than setting up future movies.

In place of Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry, we get Eddie Redmayne’s Newt, author of the infamous textbook and caretaker of a variety of “fantastic beasts.” The film opens with him coming into New York toting a suitcase with a variety of beasts dying to get out.

Some of them do indeed escape—and wreak havoc, most notably a little platypus-looking thing called a niffler. There’s a fun moment when Newt opens his case and drops into it like it contains a staircase. It reveals a vast home for the creatures inside, where he feeds them and plays with them.

And … that’s it. The movie is a big setup for the occasional special-effects sequence involving Redmayne. The creatures might be relatively cool-looking, but none of them register as great characters that move the plot along.

Dan Fogler delivers the film’s best performance as Kowalski, a wannabe baker who winds up crossing paths with Newt while trying to get a bank loan. He’s a “muggle” dabbling in a non-muggle universe, and some of the film’s better moments come from Fogler’s reactions to crazy sights. He also has a little love story that’s sort of sweet.

Ezra Miller, currently The Flash in other movies, plays Credence Barebone, a suspiciously worried-looking fellow who has a nasty secret. Colin Farrell is on hand as an agent for a secret society seeking witches and wizards—and he also has a big secret. Of course, Johnny Depp also has a role in this new universe extension, one that will surely get bigger than his two-line appearance in this film.

There’s definitely joy in simply seeing the extended Potter universe come to life again, even if Harry isn’t present, and the film itself is somewhat of a dud. There are many more films to come in the series, with Yates already announced as the director of four more chapters to be released every other year. So, yes, there will be more movie wizardry, more beasts and another big wizard showdown. This time, expect a younger Dumbledore facing off against Depp’s character, who is a precursor to Voldemort.

Wait a minute … talking about all that cool future stuff is distracting. The matter at hand would be the current film, which is a bore. See it knowing that things will probably get more exciting in future chapters, and nifflers aren’t half as interesting as hippogriffs.

Also, maybe Yates should take a break and give somebody else a shot. Bringing back Alfonso Cuaron (director of Azkaban) would be a nice move. Yates has done well, but Beasts has proven that his approach might be getting a little stale.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is playing in a variety of formats in theaters across the valley.

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