Nothing to find

“Don’t tell anyone I was in this. Please.”

“Don’t tell anyone I was in this. Please.”

Rated 2.0

The Harry Potter books have made J.K. Rowling rich and famous beyond the dreams of avarice or ego, but she’s not one to rest on her laurels. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she ventures into screenplay writing. Unfortunately, she’s not very good at it.

Fantastic Beasts takes its title from a textbook at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School; written by Newt Scamander, it’s an encyclopedia of the creatures of the wizarding world. Rowling wrote and published a version of the book as a benefit for the Comic Relief charity. For the movie, she concocts a backstory for the book, set in 1926 and chronicling the adventures of Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and several of his magical creatures in New York City.

Rowling’s story isn’t merely dark—it’s dreary and absurdly convoluted, with no trace of the wit and fun that sold 400 million Potter books. It bristles with schoolmarmish tut-tutting over the evils of bigotry, as anti-wizard sentiment flourishes in 1920s New York, led by a crusader named Mary Lou Barebone (a snarling Samantha Morton)—a swipe by Rowling, perhaps, at her own fundamentalist detractors. Other characters are the American wizard president (Carmen Ejogo), her security chief Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), and Ms. Barebone’s mopey teenage adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). There’s also a lot of wizardly hand-wringing about the whereabouts of one Gellert Grindelwald, a name tossed off in the Potter books and now being set up as a dark wizard to equal Lord Voldemort. (The studio has asked critics not to disclose the “secret” of Grindelwald’s portrayer, but five seconds on the IMDb will spill the beans.)

In league with Redmayne’s Newt are the Goldstein sisters, disgraced Auror Tina (Katherine Waterston) and telepathic Queenie (Alison Sudol), and the No-Mag (that’s Yank talk for “Muggle”) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who unwittingly sets off a crisis in the wizard universe.

None of these actors make much impression, though they’re conscientious enough. The problem is Rowling’s murky and borderline-incomprehensible writing—exacerbated by the direction of the spectacularly mediocre David Yates, who added so little to the last four Potter movies (and made the series’ one real stinker, H.P. and the Half-Blood Prince). Yates encourages his actors to mutter their lines in inaudible whispers. The worst offender is Redmayne, who diffidently mumbles his lines into his shirt collar, with hardly one intelligible word in 10—a fatal flaw when you’re describing such beasts as Bowtruckles, Chizpurfles and Occamies. (I quote from Rowling’s book; I couldn’t begin to guess which ones Redmayne names.)

This is supposed to be the first of a five-picture series. Never underestimate the devotion of Rowling’s (and Harry’s) fans, I guess, but personally, I’m not looking forward to the second one. And I’ll be surprised if the third even gets made.