Hot Take: Mediocrity was not what I expected out of an offshoot of the Harry Potter series.
Am I interested in what happens next in the story of Newt Scamander and his fantastic beasts? Sure. The last 45 minutes of rather lengthy origin story saw to that. However, this isn’t the franchise restart I expected when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced as the successor of the Harry Potter franchise. The 132 minute origin story drags in places and while the fantastic beasts sparkle with personality, the latest slew of characters added to the world of wizards and magic created by J.K. Rowling don’t have the same appeal as Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid and the others we’ve left behind in the Harry Potter series.
Maybe it’s a little unfair to hold Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to the same standards as the juggernaut that was Harry Potter. However, I found myself at times ready to abandon ship on the magical journey Rowling was taking us on this time. The fingerprints of Potterworld were actually the only thing that kept me clinging to hope for the movie to escape the necessary drawbacks to origin stories. Director David Yates’s presence was a huge reason for the visible fingerprints. Helming the last four films in the Potter series, Yates has the formula down pat. This gave the world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them the look and feel of the predecessor even if it lacked the personality and charm at times. There’s that, at least.
Knowing four additional films are coming and finding the most enjoyment in how the last 1/3 of the movie played out brings hope for the series. However, the first of the five planned films was not overwhelming and I didn’t rush to Google to find out when the sequel is coming out. That’s in stark contrast to the Harry Potter series where I started looking up the sequel date in the first 45 minutes. (Don’t judge me for using my phone while the movie was going, I couldn’t wait.)
So, let’s talk about what worked. Eddie Redmayne proved to be a good lead as writer and Magizoologist Newt Scamander, the keeper of the titular beasts. There’s still an oddity about his on-screen presence although its likely why he was cast as an equally odd character. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, the “No-Maj” (read: Muggle) who crosses paths with Scamander and gets caught up thanks to the two carrying similar looking cases. Fogler acts as the on-screen surrogate for the audience as he’s introduced to the world of magic for the first time and mimics how we must have felt our first time experiencing Harry Potter. The beasts live up to their adjective as they are indeed fantastic. However, with so many fighting for screen time, it’s tough to really establish any cohesive identity. Their magical and fun and have tons of personality but the crowded story not only inflates the run time but detracts from the beasts. Wait, I was supposed to be talking about what works. The beasts are fun especially the Niffler, a small furry kleptomaniac attracted to coins and precious metals.
Then there’s the things that sort of work. Both main females are adequate in their roles. Katherine Waterston plays Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, a former Auror who works for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) and takes Scamander into custody for unleashing beasts (a crime to have in the U.S.) and failing to obliviate a No-Maj. Alison Sudol is captivating as Queenie Goldstein, Tina’s sister who becomes smitten with Jacob. It’s unsure if Tina and Newt have any sort of romantic future but it appears that Jacob and Queenie will. Again, due to the bloated plot, these characters feel underdeveloped and lack any real depth through the first installment.
Unfortunately, the villains of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are lacking. Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves and delivers a hollow performance as the Director of Magical Security of MACUSA in charge of an investigation into a destructive magical force present in New York. He’s also eventually the man in charge of hunting down Newt once everyone is fully aware of his possession of these fantastic beasts. Yet another victim of the bloated plot, you’re never really sure of why Graves may have more sinister intentions until almost the end of the movie. It finally makes sense when it all comes out but before that, it feels like it is more of a product of plot convenience. There are other villains, too. Revealing more would be too much of a spoiler, though. They are okay but pale in comparison to the ever presence antagonists of the Potter series.
Is it a little unfair to expect Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to reach the heights of Harry Potter? I don’t think so. You have the same creator, same director and same world of magic. There are stories that could rival the excellence of Potter, for sure. This isn’t one of them. It’s a nice kick-off to the next saga in Rowling’s world of magic but nothing spectacular and surely not fantastic. There will be plenty of opportunities to right the ship though.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- The Fantastic Beasts
The book the film is based on features 85 magical species. Considerably fewer make it into the film but the ones that do are creative, fun and I’m sure they are especially delightful to those chomping at the bit to see them brought to life from book form.
- Jacob Kowalski
By the far the best character in the opening chapter, Kowalski is played to perfection by Fogler and captures the whimsical spirit of the audience in his performance.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
The length of the film makes for a heavy viewing experience. While there are truly wonderful segments, the world building aspect of the script makes for too many plot lines and a strained story that sucks the fun out of some of the more delightful aspects of the film.
- Beastus Interruptus!
As great as the fantastic beasts are, Rowling and Yates struggled to find them the right place in the story as they often feel like unnecessary distractions from the actual plot. However, we’re here for the beasts so it’s utterly confusing as to why we’re here in the first place.