Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review: Potter Extreme
If you are a living, breathing human being on the planet Earth, there is a good chance you are aware that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an extension of Harry Potter. It carries on a fine tradition with a script from author J.K. Rowling, a veteran Potter director, and a cast that is as good as any you will find in a blockbuster film.
So it’s kind of a shame that the movie isn’t all that great. It’s not terrible, it’s just missing some keye elements. Not that it really matters though. This movie is bulletproof when it comes to the box office.
The Harry Potter franchise has become too important to die. It’s a part of the lives of so, so many people (including mine), and to many it’s every bit as important as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings. There’s too much story left to tell, and too many fans still in love with the property to abandon. And too much money left on the table to let it die. So it’s not really all that surprising that a ninth film in franchise is here, and more importantly, it’s the start of a new franchise-within-a-franchise.
The new series – focusing on the character of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist studying and protecting the rare magical beasts of the world – has a long future ahead of it. This latest entry is the first of five planned films, all set in the early half of the 20th century. It expands the world of Harry Potter without continuing the earlier story, instead supplementing the world.
When Scamander arrives in 1926 New York, his consuming love of magical animals soon leads him into the crosshairs of Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Watson), a member of the Magical Congress of the United States. Despite Scamander’s numerous offenses, Tina takes a liking to the bizarre wizard, and offers to help him – and the No-Maj (Muggle) Jacob Kowalsi (Dan Fogler), who accidentally got caught up in Scamander’s hijinks.
When Scamander is accused by the auror Graves (Colin Farrell) of a crime he didn’t commit, the trio – along with Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudal), are forced to prove their innocence and stop a series of grizzly attacks across New York. Oh, and Ezra Miller shows up with a weird haircut to help add a bit of plot almost as an afterthought.
If you want to know what Fantastic Beasts is like, just look at the original books or films and imagine if Harry never escaped 4 Privet Drive. The young, would be wizard instead spent his youth trapped under the stairs, occasionally coming out for the odd beating at the hands of the Dursleys, and eventually growing into a young man desperately need of therapy and possibly an extended stay at an institution for at-risk teens.
Like so many other properties that experience a reboot or relaunch of some kind, the modern love of grittiness is injected into the Potterverse. Take the Harry Potter films, but add oppressive racism, brutal murder, and a smidge of child abuse and you have your new series.
Fantastic Beasts is a dark film, with dark tones, and a visual style that matches. Director David Yates returns for his fifth Potter(ish) film and remains true to form. For better and worse.
Yates is a character director in a visual world. The cast is probably strong enough on talent alone that he could be on autopilot and still get at least a decent showing from them, but that’s not a concern. The four main stars turn in strong performances. Fogler has what may be the breakout performance of the film as the heart and comic relief of the impromptu team, while Sudol takes what could have been a minor role and turns it into something special.
But as with his previous Potter films, Yates isn’t going to win anyone over that doesn’t already like him.
Yates looks at the wizarding world in a strange way. Where some of the previous directors – especially Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuaron – created a magical world, Yates creates a setting where magic is a tool to be used. The result is a cold world that lacks the vibrancy you’d expect. The film is bleak to begin with and Yates isn’t capable of making up the difference.
Fantastic Beasts is also a victim of one of the most common problems facing movies in a similar situation: It knows it’s the first film of a (new) series, and it acts accordingly.
While Redmayne does a lot with a relatively small amount of dialogue, Scamander is introduced more than developed. There are hints at more to come, teases for future installments that could retroactively make Fantastic Beasts better, but it doesn’t do much for the film now. It leaves gaps, and weakens the character of Scamander for most of the movie, and the same is true of Tina. There’s even a subplot with solid actors that seems poised for something significant but ultimately goes absolutely nowhere. You can assume the story thread will continue later, but if not, at least for this movie, it is a waste of film. The ending is also somewhat unfulfilling since you know it isn’t really an ending at all, more of a two-year pause.
And yet with all the issues, it is still Harry Potter. Well, not “Harry Potter,” but Harry Potter adjacent. It presents a morality tale with good and evil and does it with magic and the odd flair up of humor. It also creates a new team to root for in the coming films, along with a future conflict fans of the series will look forward to.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them review conclusion
Although it doesn’t capture the joy of the original films, and even though Yates doesn’t really seem to be all that interested in magic as a way of life, Rowling’s script manages to introduce a new angle to a familiar world. The cast is strong, and the characters have a lot of room to grow – something they will hopefully do, and make this film better as a result.
Fantastic Beasts feels more like a first chapter than a new film, but it offers enough to keep people at least interested if not compelled. Besides, even if this movie were Ishtar bad, fans are going to see it anyway.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated PG-13, with a running time of 132 minutes.