Mixed review for kickoff of new J.K. Rowling franchise

Mixed review for kickoff of new J.K. Rowling franchise

Recalling that J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series became darker and darker as the sequels wore on, don’t be surprised if you find that same element in this latest, promising new world created by the famed author. Directed by David Yates (who directed the last four “Potter” movies), this is Rowling’s first screenplay, and its flaws can’t override that these “Beasts” and their collector, Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) will have a lengthy run as at least three or four more films are in the works.

Set in 1926, decades before little Harry Potter trotted off to Hogwart’s, there are still plenty of references to the famous school of magic. But for this film, Rowling sets the action in New York City where Scamander alights to take care of a certain errand before returning to England from his global jaunt to find and collect his fantastic creatures.

He immediately runs afoul of the local customs when his creatures get loose and create havoc in the bustling city. To collect them will require the help of Tina Goldstein (Kathleen Waterston), who works for MACUSA, the American version of the British magic authorities, and a “no maj” (the American term for “muggle”) cannery worker who longs to open a bakery, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

There are other subplots that are not nearly as entertaining.

The $180 million budget allows for the magnificent CG creation of Scamander’s wonderful creatures, and they range from extra-large to petite, with my personal favorite, the Niffler, a cross between an otter and a platypus who has a knack for kleptomania that gets Newt into a lot of trouble.

The set design is a glorious re-creation of ‘20s era New York, mostly computer drawn, but still amazingly well done. Colleen Atwood’s rich, whimsical costumes complete the film’s distinctive look along with James Newton Howard’s jaunty score. What doesn’t work so well is the subplot that will obviously carry over into the next film, or beyond.

It involves a nefarious character named Grisenwald who is tearing up the city. Most likely a rogue wizard working through someone, this takes the movie to the dark side as a MACUSA higher-up named Percival Graves (Colin Ferrell) plots with a teen named Credence (Ezra Miller), who may possess overwhelming powers that are not controllable.

This element of the movie also introduces a family known as the Barebones, headed by Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), as a prim naysayer who preaches against the influence of witches and wizards from street corners. She’s a stern taskmaster with a sad family of adopted children she’s probably abusing. Revelations hinted at throughout the movie result in a denouement that involves the destruction of large parts of the city and at least two deaths, making this a real PG-13 movie that could be too intense for the kiddies.

Rowling’s new cast of characters is drawn in broad strokes, but perhaps more will be revealed about them in subsequent movies. We learn next to nothing about Newt except his affinity for the creatures he collects. Redmayne’s portrayal gives him an almost pathological shyness with a wispy voice that at times is hard to understand.

Waterston (actor Sam Waterston’s daughter) is a great match for him, and a possible love connection might be in the works. Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), a telepathic working at MACUSA, is a fun flapper-type with an eye for Fogler’s character that plays out in a cute way.

This is a fairly good first start, but I was much more intrigued by the beasts — great and small — rather than the heavy-handed wizardry that controls the last half of the movie. Here’s hoping Rowling lightens things up some before “Beasts” becomes a burden.

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