Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review
It seems to be somewhat of a tragedy that, in cinema, magic is losing its ability to defy our expectations. Or, at least, movies about magic are.
Such is the unfortunate case in the newest addendum to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter cinematic universe, Fantastic Beast and Where to Find Them. The film, the first in a series of five, is a spinoff/prequel that perhaps does not spin far enough off from the themes and tropes of the original Potter series. The film’s safe decisions end up leaving viewers with an unpretentious but unambitious movie that could easily have been adapted from an online fan fiction.
Fantastic Beasts’ story revolves around Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British researcher of magical creatures, who has made his way across the pond to New York City in an effort to return some of the beasts in his possession to their natural habitats. Things are quickly complicated, however, when Newt accidentally switches his suitcase full of creatures with the case of one Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (the American slang for a non-magical person). Naturally, some of the beasts escape, and Newt has to track them all down while being actively pursued by the Aurors (think wizard FBI) of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, led by the mysterious Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
Newt and Jacob quickly team up with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a demoted former Auror who longs to return to her position, and Queenie (Alison Sudol), Tina’s sister and a powerful Legilimens (psychic wizard). The four start off on a romp across Manhattan to hunt down Newt’s beloved beasts and to investigate a mysterious plot involving Graves and the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a cult dedicated to proving the existence and dangers of magic to the outside world.
From this brief plot summary alone, the parallels between Beasts and the original Harry Potter films should be painstakingly obvious to fans of the original series: a menacing wizard bureaucracy, strong prejudices between magic users and non-magic users, authority figures embroiled in dark plots, and fanciful encounters with magical creatures. Ultimately, some of these parallels led to the strengths of Beasts, while others led to its biggest failures.
To put it simply, when Fantastic Beasts is making an effort to be fun, it is enjoyable. The banter between the lovable Jacob and the sweetly awkward Newt is undeniably charming, a testament to the charisma of both Fogler and Redmayne. The romantic interplay between Jacob and Queenie sates the same mental thirst for silly and endearing dialogue. Perhaps the biggest strengths of the film are its scenes focusing on the capturing of Newt’s creatures – not only are the “beasts” generally either adorable or awe-inspiring CGI accomplishments, but the dynamic between Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and Tina is at its best as the team wrests the creatures back into Newt’s suitcase one by one. These moments of levity make Fantastic Beasts feel like, at the very least, an adventurous and unpretentious rollercoaster ride.
However, the actual finding of the titular fantastic beasts constitutes a disappointingly small portion of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film, penned by Rowling herself and directed by Harry Potter series veteran David Yates, seems insistent on cramming every thematic element from the original series into the new narrative. Scenes in the headquarters of the Magical Congress feel like dreary rehashes of the original’s Ministry of Magic, with both institutions serving as tired, thinly veiled digs at the inefficacy of bureaucracy. Moreover, instead of even trying to expand on the themes of prejudice introduced (and perhaps beaten to a pulp) in the original Potter series, Rowling’s screenplay simply beats the same well-worn drum as the previous films did: discrimination by both wizards and No-Majs is wrong, and only through unity and openness can progress be reached. For new, young audiences, this is a strong idea, and a positive one, but for older viewers well aware of Rowling’s previous work, the film’s message can at times feel almost like a parody of itself.
Perhaps the two most infuriatingly unimaginative instruments of these themes in the film come in the form of two characters: Colin Farrell’s Graves and Ezra Miller’s Credence Barebone.
Graves, the villain of the story, is a classic Rowling archetype, a powerful member of the magical elites that has a hidden motive unbeknownst to his fellow magicians. Nothing about Graves is nuanced; he is villainy, pure and simple, and even a reveal about his character towards the end of the film does little to redeem his utter lack of complexity.
Credence, meanwhile, is a teenage member of the New Salem fanatics who is actively abused by the cult’s stern leader, who suspects Credence is secretly a wizard. Miller plays Credence as eternally submissive, both to his mother and later to Graves, and Rowling’s script refuses to treat the character as anything more than a plot device whose feelings of repression act as a ticking time bomb. Credence’s suppressed emotions, while a somewhat accurate (if overt) analogy for the repression felt by subjugated LGBTQ+ youth, are not treated with sympathy by Rowling’s script, which coldly ignores Credence’s fate once his importance to the story has diminished.
Most spinoff films rely on the nostalgia felt by old fans for their box office and critical success, but Fantastic Beasts suffers a completely inverse problem. The fresher characters like Newt, Jacob, Queenie, and Tina are at best amusing and at worst poorly sketched out, but they at least can give audiences sincere smiles and big laughs. The themes and character archetypes resurrected from Rowling’s older work, however, smother the story’s potential, dousing the fun of the film in ideas that lack new perspective.
The upcoming Fantastic Beasts films have the potential to become either an intolerable, thematic re-dressing of the original Potter series, or an enjoyable, if innocuous, film series focusing on character rather than theme. While neither of these roads necessarily justify the production of a full five-film series, one of them is certainly preferable to the other. If Rowling and Yates want to build a strong franchise, they will make sure to focus on the actual fantastic beasts in the sequels to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.