Wow, I had so many issues with Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them that it’s hard to pick a starting point, really. I’ll preface the following with this disclaimer, though: I am not, and never have been, a fan of Harry Potter. Sure, I’ve seen all the movies, but despite trying to listen to Stephen Fry reading the first in the series, my exposure to the books has been nil. The movies were largely a hit and miss affair for me, ranging from pretty good (& The Prisoner of Azkaban) to mediocre (& The Chamber of Secrets). I’m certainly not a Harry Potter hater – the books came along at a time when childhood reading habits were plummeting, and Rowling was instrumental in the early development of the YA sector. So while I will never be a fan of the Potter phenomenon, I have a healthy respect for it. In saying that, my lack of any intricate knowledge of the Potterverse didn’t contribute to what I felt were shortcomings here.
In the movie, Hogwarts-educated English Wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne – Jupiter Ascending, The Theory of Everything) arrives in New York in 1926 with a magical portal in the form of suitcase. When a number of creatures escape from it, they have to be rounded up – all this while the American magical community are dealing with a situation which could expose them to the human population, potentially setting off a war. The structure of the movie reminded me a lot of the original Ghostbusters (see my review of the reboot here!): first half of the movie is all about the rounding up of various entities, during which skills are learned and honed that enable the protagonist to take on the movie’s climactic Big Bad. Scamander is an awkward, mostly passive character – someone who’d much rather be living a simple life away from the problems and hassles of everyday life. Thrust into a new situation where he has to actively use his skills as a wizard, his growth is more like that of a video game character’s skill tree, rather than actual personal growth – and I’m totally okay with this. If Scamander the character had actually changed during the couple of days in which the movie takes place, it would have seemed forced and phony – much better that his growth as a person was a small step, unfinshed. But it’s really the only piece of the screenplay that worked for me. I find Redmayne a mostly annoying actor to watch, but found myself warming to his portrayal of Scamander – it seemed the only piece of the movie that had any kind of heart.
Unfortunately, the structure is lacking. I found several missed opportunities throughout that would have enriched the story without really changing the core plot. Having established that America has its own magical community, I was kind of disappointed that this community is presented as so dour and charmless – one example of that being the magical “cops”, for want of a better word. Dressed in hats and long red raincoats, they are little more than personality-free set extras , and reminded me more of the black-coated aliens from Dark City. Somehow, the presence of magic makes me think that issues can be handled differently than simply having a wizarding police force, armed with wands instead of guns. I don’t feel that the magic community should just be a mirror image of the human world here, if you know what I mean. A good chance missed, I think. Also, America at that point in time was still finding its own global identity after the civil war, a place where invention and the pioneer spirit was in full swing, but I felt none of that in the movie. A good way to show that would have been by Scamander seeing and acknowledging the vast differences between where he came from and this new world – and to see those attitudes reversed when people dealt with him. Fantastic Beasts might be set in the roaring 20s, but other than the sets, there’s no real attempt made to make it a period piece. In contrast, Operation Avalanche, High Rise, and The Conjuring 2 make a point of being as authentic as possible in how the movie feels.
I could quibble over a minor point about how the relationships within the movies felt phony too, but instead, I’ll go back to the structure – in Ghostbusters, that evolution from novice to pro is handled organically. The movie concentrates on the team as everything around them escalates – they are a part of everything, even the creation of the climactic villain. Not so in Fantastic Beasts. Here there are two stories – one where Scamander and his new friends take part in whimsical, mostly fun scenes as they attempt to round up the creatures that have escaped from Scamander’s suitcase-portal. The scenes don’t really add up to much either in terms of escalating drama or plot development. The other story is, tonally, a much darker story involving elements of child abuse, repression, and manipulation – and surprise, surprise, Colin Farrell is the star of this part of the movie. To me, this was where the movie held my interest, but only just. There is a bridging scene where Scamander and Tina (Katherine Waterston) are apprehended and brought before Farrell’s Percival Graves, but when they subsequently escape, both stories once again go their separate ways almost as if the scene had never happened. By the time Act 3 comes around, the Scamander storyline is ended and the characters get rolled into the darker Graves storyline – it feels oddly disjointed and the two pieces do not fit together well. Being as this is Rowling’s first screenplay, and that the story isn’t actually an adaptation of the book (which is little more than a fictitious bestiary), Rowling can be forgiven for turning in this mostly amateurish effort – especially with a worldwide gross of $800 million.
Like I said, I’m not the target audience here. The core Potter movies didn’t make me a fan of the franchise, and Fantastic Beasts did nothing to pique my interest either. If they’re planning on making four more movies in this series, I can only imagine that they’ll dispense with the premise of this movie, and simply make the series about Scamander v the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald. I can’t imagine that the series will go in a different direction, given how this movie ends, but it seems more like a lazy money grab. Instead of making an all new kind of Potter franchise (at least until the inevitable cinematic return of the old cast), this just seems like the start of Harry Potter v Voldemort Redux.