Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Release Date: November 18th, 2016
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, and Colin Farrell
Back in my review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I predicted that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would end up being a disappointment. Harry Potter hasn't made the appropriate steps to expand its universe in the same way properties like Star Wars have done, and I felt that any attempts to do so would be inadequate. I have to admit that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them surprised me. It definitely expands on Harry Potter universe by giving our first look at the wizarding world outside of Britain. Whether it's a good addition is another thing entirely.
In Fantastic Beasts..., Newt Scamander, an eccentric wizard (aren't all wizards eccentric to a degree?) who dabbles in the care and study of magical creatures, makes his way to New York in 1926. He's carrying a briefcase filled with magical creatures, one of which makes a habit of constantly escaping. While attempting to apprehend this adorable creature in a bank, Newt inadvertently gets a muggle named Jacob Kowalski involved by mixing up their briefcases. Kowalski, being a muggle (here they're called "No-Majs") accidentally lets several other magical creatures loose, forcing Scamander to run around Manhattan chasing after them. With the help of Kowalski, ex-auror Tina Goldstein, and Tina's sister Queenie, Scamander must scour New York City for the creatures before they're noticed by the "No-Maj's" or else face being arrested.
That in itself would make for a decent plot, and it is definitely the most interesting part of the film. Except it's not everything. Auror and Director of Magical Security Percival Graves has been tracking down a powerful magical presence that has been invisibly ripping up parts of New York. He believes it is coming from one of the adopted children of Mary Lou Barebone, the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society (called "New Salemers") that advocated for the destruction of witchcraft. Graves has been working secretly with Barebone's adopted son, Creedence, who has been trying to find the child at the source of this destructive force. And it's already killed a very important No-Maj and will likely strike again. All of this is happening in tandem with the monster hunt that Scamander is holding, and the two of them start to merge when the American wizarding government blames Scamander's beasts for the deaths and damage caused by this mysterious destructive force.
If you couldn't tell from the description, there's a lot going on in this film. The parts of the movie that concern themselves with the magical beasts are truly "fantastic." Whenever we're learning about the creatures, seeing them in action, or trying to recapture them, the film soars and the audience is entranced. Some are adorable, others frightening, and all of them give some sense of marvel and magic, and makes us feel like we're back in Harry Potter's world. Magic in America is also a fascinating new addition. The settings and designs of magical America in the mid 1920's are beautiful and exquisite, and yet cold and empty. There are several scenes of grand offices and buildings and beautiful streets that, even when filled, seem cavernous and empty. I imagine that the film is commenting on the era's grandiose nature and advancing technology that is progressing the country as a whole but leaving people behind, as evidenced in a scene where Kowalski's loan for a bakery is denied by the bank because "machines can make a hundred donuts in an hour." There's a magical speakeasy that makes a (rather unnecessary) appearance that is a neat little addition to how magic and culture combine. And in America, there is a strict boundary between No-Maj's and wizards, to the point where they cannot intermingle or intermarry, which seems fitting for the isolationist and racist time period (gee how America has changed). There are some pretty great performances as well, most notably Colin Farrell's Graves, who commands the scenes with his presence and confidence. Dan Fogler's Kowalski and Alison Sudol's Queenie seem to be enjoying their new roles as well.
But there are a lot of issues with this film that keep it from reaching the echelon of other Harry Potter films, or from being a great film in general. First and foremost is the inexcusable casting of Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander. Redmayne is boring, bug-eyed, and without any form of presence whatsoever. We saw the movie in a GTX theater that had a commercial before the movie (not a quick little test advertisement that these theaters usually have, an honest-to-god commercial) telling the audience how great it was that they were in this theater listening to this sound system, and we still couldn't understand half of what Redmayne was saying because he wouldn't stop mumbling. Sadly, many other performances also fell flat, including Katherine Waterston's uncharismatic Tina, and Carmen Ejogo's lifeless magical president. Some casting choices seemed like bizarre mistakes. Why was Jon Voight in this movie? Why did they waste Ron Perlman on such a small part? Who thought casting a certain actor as the main villain (which I won't say because of spoilers) was a good idea?
The additional plotline of having Scamander blamed for these deaths isn't necessarily a bad one, but it adds its own menagerie of confusing twists, bloated exposition, and unnecessary scenes, giving it the impression of extreme padding. On the plus side, the film is completely self-contained, so if anyone was worried that they would have to wait for the next film in the five-movie series to follow the story, then they needn't worry.
Overall, I welcome the additions to our knowledge of the wizarding world, our trip to a magical New York, and the fantastic beasts. But the film is resting too hard on the laurels of its predecessors, and feels it can get by only with CGI and name recognition. Like Rowling's later books, this film needed a stronger editor. While I enjoyed it, it's not the new Harry Potter film we were all hoping for, but it also hasn't gotten me as worried about the franchise's future like Cursed Child had. If you have any interest in the Harry Potter world, or even had a passing interest in seeing the film, I'd recommend checking it out. If you think you could wait until it's available digitally or on DVD, then you wouldn't be missing much.