Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sounds like an incredibly promising film, especially when you realize that it’s part of the Harry Potter universe. As someone who’s been a huge Harry Potter fan for the past 17 years, I was excited when I heard we were getting another installment in one of my favorite book series. I was almost as excited for Fantastic Beasts as I was for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Well, I can tell you that when I finally read the published script for Cursed Child, I was vastly disappointed, so maybe that should’ve been an indicator for my reaction to Fantastic Beasts.
Don’t get me wrong – I thought this was an okay film. But that’s it. A solid okay. Not bad, but definitely not something that I want to see over and over. If I wasn’t so paranoid about spoilers, I would’ve just waited until it came out on DVD or Blu-ray to see it. I was iffy about the movie ever since I heard they were going to adapt it into multiple installments, and after the disappointing Cursed Child, I assumed that the Harry Potter universe might no longer hold that special place in my heart.
I think I’m getting ahead of myself (as usual). Let’s take this from the top and properly discuss this movie. (spoilers ahead!)
If you’re not a major Harry Potter fan, then you might be curious as to how this fits into the universe. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a textbook used by the characters attending Hogwarts. You can actually buy a copy of the book (along with another in-story book called Quidditch Through the Ages) to add to your collection. However, Fantastic Beasts is not really a story. There’s no narrative. It’s literally just an encyclopedia of various creatures and beasts from the Harry Potter universe. You can plow through it in about 15-30 minutes. That’s why I was skeptical about how they were going to make a movie about it (let alone an entire trilogy [or, as we’ve recently discovered, a five-movie series]). It was a slight relief to learn that J.K. Rowling herself would be contributing to the movie series, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’ll be great. I felt like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was going to suffer from the same fate as The Hobbit.
It’s no secret that I am not a fan of The Hobbit films. I can go on and on about how that story should never have been a trilogy; but alas, money talks. I guess they really wanted to squeeze every last dime out of the franchise while they still can. This leads to the story feeling extremely drawn-out, and you start to see unnecessary contributions to pad the run-time. With Fantastic Beasts, since there’s no real narrative, they’re essentially padding out a non-existant story.
Sorry, I’m rambling again. I need to actually review this movie!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows an English wizard named Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) as he travels to America with a briefcase full of magical creatures. He arrives in New York and immediately finds himself in a mess of trouble when he accidentally swaps briefcases with a bumbling, good-hearted No-Maj (non-magical person) named Jacob Kowalski. Jacob accidentally unleashes the creatures in New York, and Newt must gather them up before the non-magic community finds out. But he’s too busy being hunted down by Tina Goldstein, a member of MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America), who wants to arrest him for bringing magical creatures to the U.S.
Eddie Redmayne was an okay Newt Scamander, but he felt really bland. There wasn’t anything particularly engaging about him. He just felt like a generic hero with no real distinguishing characteristics. Tina and Jacob had slightly more development, but overall, nobody really stuck out. They all felt pretty stock. I think it’s because they didn’t exist in any books, so they don’t have such a rich background ingrained in their character. I’m sure if I watched the original Harry Potter movies without having read the books, I’d feel the same way. But there are countless movies that are much shorter than Fantastic Beasts and that have plenty of characters but still manage to develop the main cast. Where did this movie go wrong?
We find out that Newt’s original goal of coming to the U.S. was to bring one of the creatures home to Arizona. And here we have a major problem – why was Newt traveling by non-magical means? In the Harry Potter universe, there are countless ways to travel. Broomsticks, Floo Network – we even see Newt Apparate several times. Well, why couldn’t he do that in the first place? He could’ve saved himself so much trouble by just teleporting to Arizona. Boom. Mission over.
Now, it’s very possible that he went to New York for a particular reason. At one point in the movie, a shady MACUSA agent named Graves (played by Colin Farrell) asks Newt why Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore was so fond of him. Newt says he’s no sure, but the way he says it, you think that he IS sure. What if Newt was sent to New York on a mission specifically by Dumbledore?
This theory would make sense in the grand scheme of things. Despite the title, this movie is not solely about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While Newt and co. are busy dealing with magical creatures, there is an entire secondary plot going on in the background, which, frankly, is a much more interesting story. There is a war brewing within the magical community revolving around a powerful dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (imagine the magical version of Hitler). Also, the wizarding world is struggling to keep itself a secret from the No-Maj community, but the No-Majs are becoming increasingly suspicious about their magical neighbors. This is where Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell come into play.
Farrell’s character, Graves, is investigating magical disturbances in the No-Maj community and wants to find out what’s causing them, and in order to do this, he secretly recruits Miller’s character, Credence Barebone. Credence is the abused foster child of a radical anti-witch conspiracy theorist named Mary Lou Barebone, who leads a group called the Second Salemers in a fight to eradicate the magical community. Credence isn’t too fond of Mary Lou’s aggressive anti-magic campaign, but he is too weak to fight back against her oppressive regime. That is why he desperately seeks the approval of Graves, who promises to help him in exchange for his assistance.
For a brief moment, I assumed Graves was Credence’s real father. Farrell and Miller have decent chemistry on-screen, and you truly feel a father-son-like connection between them. I would’ve preferred that to be the central point of the movie while Newt, Tina, and Jacob’s story took the backseat (but when you look at the movie overall, it may already seem that way anyway).
The real tie-in between the wizard war story and the Newt story is a creature called the Obscurus, which has never been mentioned before in Harry Potter canon. An Obscurus is a dark cloud-like essence that is the result of a young witch or wizard who struggled to repress their magical abilities. An Obscurial child (and its accompanying Obscurus essence) cannot live past the age of ten, but Newt soon reveals that he captured an Obscurus that belonged to a Sudanese girl and is keeping it alive in his briefcase. This may seem like an off-hand scene that doesn’t mean much at first, but it plays majorly into the film’s climax.
While I thought the Obscurus concept is unique, it bothers me that we’ve never EVER heard of it until just now. This movie takes place about 70 years before the events of the Harry Potter series. We’ve heard of numerous dark magical creatures and concepts so far like Dementors, Horcruxes, the Unforgivable Curses, etc. How have we never heard of an Obscurus before? I mean, it’s obvious that it was invented within the last year or two when they were writing this movie, but it’s pretty flimsy when you look at the overall universe.
Switching gears, another major problem I had with the film is the language. This may just be the dumb American in me, but I can’t understand heavy British accents about 50% of the time, especially when the characters are muttering. Redmayne mumbled a bunch of his lines, particularly whenever he was referencing a magical creature. I don’t think the cast realized that not everybody knows what these creatures are, so it’s important that the characters properly enunciate their names. Otherwise, you have people going “Wait, what’s that little green stick thing called? What do you call that giant rhino with the glowing horn?”
And one more thing – there’s a scene where a magical rhino-like creature called an Erumpent sticks its horn into a tree, causing the trunk to explode. Unless you read the Fantastic Beasts book (or remember the scene from Deathly Hallows), you wouldn’t know that Erumpent horns have explosive properties. If the movie is going to introduce such a crazy and obscure magical element, it should at least give a bit of an explanation for the non-book-readers.
The movie is about two and a half hours long (as most films are nowadays), but the climax started to hit about an hour into the movie. It definitely felt like they were just drawing it out for the sake of padding run time, which makes me worried that the rest of the series will be the same way. At least the climax was pretty epic, and there’s a nice little twist towards the end that you don’t want to miss. Seriously, it gave me the chills.
Nobody’s performance really stood out for me. Everyone was average at best. I felt like Dan Fogler‘s Jacob Kowalski tried a little too hard to be funny. It was like watching Balls of Fury all over again (yes, the star of Balls of Fury is now the star of a Harry Potter spin-off movie). Katherine Waterston didn’t cut it for me either, and her role in the movie felt very artificial. But I’m happy that the awkward romance subplot wasn’t shoved into our face. You knew that there was a spark between Tina and Newt, but it wasn’t like the directors were pressing them together and going “NOW KISS!”. Oh, and then there’s Tina’s friend Queenie, a flirtatious Legilimens (mind-reader), who falls in love with Jacob because she’s fascinated by No-Majs. That’s it. That’s the main reason she’s attracted to him (although, it’s possible she read his mind and found something appealing about him). I don’t know, but that was one of the most awkwardly forced romances I’ve ever seen on-screen (unless you include 90% of the relationships on the CW).
So I think I’ve properly explained how I felt about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’d give the movie an average grade, but it’s not something I’d rush to see again. I would say that huge Harry Potter fans might love to see another installment, but even as a self-proclaimed Harry Potter fanatic myself, I wasn’t too impressed. Maybe I’ve just lost the magic? Hopefully others don’t feel the same way.
Did you see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them yet? What did you think? Am I being too harsh, or do you agree that it wasn’t that great? Let us know what you think in the comments or on Twitter!