NOTE: While this review does not contain any overt spoilers, I will be going into some early story set up and character details. So if you’re highly sensitive to knowing anything about the movie, I recommend seeing it for yourself and then reading this review.
This probably comes as no surprise, but I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I’ve read the books dozens of times, and seen the movies dozens more. I’ve even ranked the movies and the books on separate occasions because I’m a sucker for ordered lists. I’m a Ravenclaw and proud.
So it stands to reason that I’m the exact target demographic for Fantastic Beasts, and there’s no possible way that I didn’t love it, right? Well, yes and no. I did enjoy myself throughout the movie, and it was certainly cool to be back in that magical world. But nothing was as I remembered it, and the movie falls short in some very key areas. Let’s discuss.
Fantastic Beasts is surprisingly an ensemble story, and it’s best served in that way. I had a realization coming out of the theatre: Eddie Redmayne created a very interesting character in Newt Scamander, but I just wasn’t all that interested in his character. That might not make sense, so let me explain. Newt Scamander, aside from having an infinitely silly name, is a very shy person. He doesn’t seem to get along with other people all that well, which I’m sure informed his interest in magical creatures. He doesn’t make eye contact, isn’t good at expressing himself verbally, and often finds himself existing outside of the rules. But he has a good heart and really cares for his creatures, almost to the point where he cares about them more than he does other people. There are plenty of nuances to Redmayne’s performance, and I believed his circumstances completely.
None of this would be a big deal if he was a supporting character. The problem is, he’s the protagonist and “hero” of this movie. It’s mostly his story we’re following, and I just wasn’t all that invested in him as a character. Look, I’m not saying that Redmayne isn’t a great actor, he certainly is. But if future movies are a continuation of Newt’s character, and he becomes the driving force for future storylines, I have to say that I’m significantly less interested.
However, the other three members of our central cast fare much better. Dan Fogler’s Kowalski, Katherine Waterson’s Tina, and Alison Sudol’s Queenie are all brilliant. Kowalski is the sort of foil for Newt, and the main driver for comedy. He’s a No-Maj (America’s version of a Muggle), and just kind of gets swept up in the happenings of the film. He definitely acts as a surrogate for the audience, asking a lot of questions that lead to exposition. His general acceptance of all the crazy things that are happening is nice because it doesn’t slow the story down, but it borders on being unbelievable at times. Tina and Queenie act as the love interests for Newt and Kowalski, respectively. Tina is a disgraced Auror with a penchant for getting in over her head. Queenie is her naive, mind-reading sister. They both act as saviors for the rest of the group at different points, and I really enjoyed Tina’s “go and get it” attitude and Queenie’s representation of the flighty 1920’s female we’ve seen on screen for decades. These three are really the ones that heighten the circumstances and make you more invested in what’s going on. It’s disappointing that the main character is the least interesting of the group, but the others are strong enough that it’s less bothersome.
The other characters throughout the film are less consistent. Colin Farrell’s Graves is pretty bland, Ezra Miller’s Credence over-emotes to the point of being annoying, and Samantha Morton and Carmen Ejogo are both forgettable as Mary Lou and Madam Picquery. Johnny Depp does make a cameo as Grindelwald, and while I’m sure it’ll please most hardcore Harry Potter fans, the actual circumstances of his appearance completely undermine another character and makes it clear that the cameo was done only for shock value as it most definitely doesn’t serve the story. Special shout out goes to Ron Perlman and his voice work for the goblin Gnarlack. It’s a small role, but it stood out to me.
There are several different stories happening in Fantastic Beasts, and not only do they end up coming together by complete happenstance, but some of them really serve very little purpose in the first place.
First, there’s the main story of Newt trying to recollect his creatures, as they’re now scattered around New York City. Second, there’s the Macusa (Magical Congress of the United States of America) and their quest to first and foremost, protect the secrecy of the magical world, and secondarily, stop some invisible magical beast that’s been causing chaos and destruction across the city. Then there’s the Auror Graves, who’s trying to track down a local Obscurus, which is a dark force created by young witches/wizards being forced to suppress their magical abilities. Then we have Mary Lou and Credence, who are leading what is essentially a cult trying to “out” the magical world for all to see. There’s also the Shaw family, which are the representation of the No-Maj political sphere, people who don’t seem to believe in magic at all. They really serve no purpose whatsoever, but going by the fact that Jon Voight plays the father, it’s safe to say that he’ll remain a character moving forwards.
I won’t go into how things tie together for the sake of spoilers, but I will say that it’s a very messy amalgamation of disparate storylines that doesn’t feel satisfying and certainly doesn’t make much sense. It’s almost as if they set out to make the Fantastic Beasts movie, but then wanted to build this larger world and shoehorned in plot lines that will only pay off in future movies. It makes for a very sloppy viewing experience where things just seemed to happen with no relation to what had come before.
After seeing the movie, a friend of mine said that it was weird seeing this magical universe not through the eyes of kids, since that’s what we’ve been used to with the Harry Potter franchise. That didn’t bother me personally, but it does make this movie feel very different from those that have come before it. Not only is it taking place seventy years before Harry Potter, but it’s also in the United States, a place where we’ve known nothing about how the magical community operates.
From a certain perspective, that’s definitely exciting. I learned a ton of new things about the Potterverse while watching this. From the existence of the Macusa, to a mention of American wizarding school Ilvermorny, to the fact that marriage between magical folk and No-Majs is forbidden in the US, it’s all very fascinating stuff, and sure to please hardcore fans like myself. But on the other hand, it really takes away that advantage we all had watching the Harry Potter movies. There were certain things that were easy to accept, because we already knew about them. After seeing that first explanation for Quidditch in Sorcerer’s Stone, we just knew what was happening on screen whenever there was a Quidditch match. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough contextual exposition in Fantastic Beasts. It’s like they thought this was the third movie in the series and not the first.
Visually the 1920’s vibe is cool, and really helps visually separate this from Harry Potter in a positive way. There are enough commonalities between the two magical franchises to where things feel familiar, yet distinct. Obviously, the time period was a necessity considering the over-arching Grindelwald story they seem intent on telling, but it works. None of the characters stood out as feeling too modern, and I’ve always been a sucker for the overcoat and fedora look. Seriously, the Aurors in this look badass as hell with their red leather trench coats. I do have to say that I’m a little disappointed that the movie didn’t do much with the 1926 New York setting, though. Sure, there are old-timey cars and a scene that takes place in a speakeasy, but this movie could have taken place anywhere in any time period with very few adjustments needed.
The creature design is really where Fantastic Beasts shines. All of Newt’s magical animals are somewhat analogous to real-world animals, but have that distinct, otherworldly alien feel. Newt’s Niffler (the platypus looking creature seen in the trailers) is definitely the highlight. It’s disappointing that capturing the creatures is really only half of the larger story, because I think it could have stood on its own and would have made for a much cleaner viewing experience.
David Yates’ direction is not so great here. There were several times when shots were framed poorly, cuts went on too long, or acting decisions didn’t feel quite right. There were also several instances of really bad green screen work. Despite the fact that he did a decent job with the final four Harry Potter movies and seemed to be improving over time, I’m not sure he’s the right fit to be leading this new franchise.
There was a surprising amount of horror in the film surrounding the Obscurus, and I really dug it. There was one particular scene that was miles more terrifying than anything we saw with Voldemort. I hope that remains an element of the films moving forwards, as Grindelwald’s fanatic followers and fear regarding the magical community could be well served by this.
Despite my many misgivings about the disparate plot threads and characterization of Newt Scamander himself, I still really enjoyed watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s far from a perfect movie, and David Yates seems to have regressed as a director from the great job he did with Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows Part Two, but it brings back that magical fun that we’ve been missing since Harry Potter’s journey wrapped up.
I have serious concerns about where the story goes from here, and that’s only compounded by the fact that Warner Bros doesn’t even seem to know. But if there’s one thing JK Rowling has always been fantastic at, it’s expanding this magical world into new and exciting directions. I’m putting my faith in her right now, and hoping that the studio doesn’t ruin things with more over-complicated stories or by stretching things too thin. Let’s see what happens.
I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and my experience with Fantastic Beasts was obviously influenced by this. Reviews are inherently subjective, but I felt the need to explain my score a bit, since at a glance the written review seems more negative than the final score. It’s really hard assigning scores to things, as I said many times. It’s the reason I stopped even giving scores for a while. But that’s what the people want, so here we are. I find that most things I enjoy but have some issues with tend to land in the 7.5 – 7.9 range. I obviously had some serious issues with Fantastic Beasts, and the things I did like were smaller aspects of the film. But, I also love the Potterverse. I was happy to have seen this movie, and left with some interesting questions about the magical world in the US. If you aren’t a die-hard Harry Potter nerd, your mileage may vary. But for me, based on the pros and cons, this score feels right.
If you haven’t already, check out my Dr. Strange review!