I’ve noticed that many of my recent blog posts have been overly negative. That’s why I decided to write a review about the newest movie set in the Harry Potter universe with a hope that my blatant fanboyism of the other materials may rub off on this movie. Unfortunately… well… ellispes…
JK Rowling is pulling a George Lucas, albeit on an extended time frame. If Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was our Phantom Menace then Fantastic Beasts is our Clone Wars and we are reaching the point where all hope for the universe is dead or dying. I just want JK to move on but like Lucas, she seems incapable of doing it.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander, a wizarding environmentalist who has just arrived in New York with a suitcase filled with assorted cutesy monsters. Minutes after arriving he exposes multiple muggles to magic and starts an improbable chain of escalating issues in the magical yankee world.
Eddie Redmayne puts on an okay performance for a thoroughly uninteresting character. The actor sticks religiously to Newt’s non-committal affectation as he is dragged through the storyline with no impetus of his own.
Newt is joined by Jacob Kowalski, a muggle with a dream of opening a bakery. Dan Fogler gives one of the movie’s best characters lots of personality.
Love interests come in the form of Tina Goldstein and Queenie acted by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol respectively. Tina is a boring witch, working in the American Ministry for Magic (known as the Macusa). Queenie is a kindly witch with natural legilimency (mind reading) and some actual personality. They bring little to the movie other than to add two forced romantic subplots.
Colin Farrell plays Percival Graves, the Macusa Auror in charge of bringing Newt to justice. Farrell is actually fantastic throughout the movie. Subtly commanding and always seen as a threat.
The movie also spends some time on a subplot involving the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a group whose mission is to expose and and murder witches and wizards. They are never seen as a threat because of how powerful magic users are. In fact the Harry Potter books made light of the Salem Witch burnings.
Non-magic people were particularly afraid of magic in medieval times, but not very good at recognizing it. On the rare occasion that they did catch a real witch or wizard, burning had no effect whatsoever. The witch or wizard would perform a basic Flame Freezing Charm and then pretend to shriek with pain while enjoying a gentle, tickling sensation. Indeed, Wendelin the Weird enjoyed being burned so much that she allowed herself to be caught no less than forty-seven times in various disguises.
The sideplot introduces Ezra Miller as Credence, a young adult being repressed by his tyrannical adopted mother. Ezra Miller succeeds in making Credence both pitiable and creepy despite having very little screen time to do so.
The Magical Beasts
The beasts in this movie may waste a lot of time but they are filled to the brim with character. Niffler in particular, is a steady source of jokes and his cutesy appearance all but guarantees him to be a fan favourite with younger audience members. Swooping evil is an interesting little monster if a little too useful. There were numerous other beasts on show from the huge erumpent, to the smart little demiguise, to the disreputable murtlap.
The thunderbird should have good onscreen presence but the wow factor is lost thanks to one major issue, which brings us onto:
The Special Effects
The special effects are awful. Some of the worst I’ve seen in years. When Newt tries to pet Frank the thunderbird, his hand clearly floats midair. The beasts look fake and plasticky like 8 year old special effects. Only the obscurus survives looking stupid but that’s because it creates such and commotion that you can’t see anything well.
All of the magic is now white coloured and looks quite a bit blander than in previous Harry Potter movies. Speaking of magic, why does Graves and Tina’s wands link when they fight? That’s an effect of sharing a wand core which is very unlikely.
I would love to tell you about the magical American world of magic but we see very little of it. The most interesting locations are, unsurprisingly, all set the in the American Ministry’s headquarters but these appear in the minority of scenes. We spend most of the time in boring 1920’s New York which is just a sea of grey buildings. I think maybe the world is supposed to be seen as the polar opposite of the one inside Newt’s suitcase but that doesn’t make my yawn return from whence it came.
Plot, Motivations and Politics
A key issue in this movie is the lack of connection or motivation between the protagonist and antagonist. Newt is a hippy animal lover meaning the ideal opponent for him would be some sort of magical game hunter. Instead he gets a Voldemort B side and it just doesn’t fit. It never feels like Newt should be involved in the plot and he only ends up there through unlikely circumstances.
Tina’s motivation to help Newt just doesn’t feel strong enough. We can forgive Jakob because he is infatuated with the wizarding world. It doesn’t help that Tina’s character is a black hole for charisma, making everyone who comes near her systematically more forgettable.
The movie also flip flops on whether Creedence is repressing his links to the wizarding world or seeking to increase upon them. This makes for some awkward attempts at character development later on.
Several times it looks like JK Rowling was about to drop down some harsh criticisms on American society, particularly with the American Ministry’s acceptance of the death penalty and the Aurors ‘shoot first ask questions later’ decision making. Sadly, she doesn’t go all the way through with this. The movie could have questioned the morality of imprisoning someone for life using Newt’s defence of confined creatures. Sadly this chance of a running theme is squandered.
The World building in the movie may be strong, but the world is weak. The characters are far less interesting that the old Harry Potter cast even though they are acted quite well.
It certainly doesn’t help that the movie has around 5 endings as if it’s trying to emulate Return of the King.
Fantastic Beasts is flashy enough to keep kids happy but anyone looking for the fun mysteries and interesting twists of the book series will be left feeling unsatisfied.
4.3 / 10
The Spoiler Zone (filled with additional spoiler filled musings)
Why is Johnny Depp Grindelwald? The actor is now more recognisable than his own roles. Rather than setting Grindelwald up for a sequel through Graves they instead force Grindelwald into the movie at the end. This is made even worse by how genuinely good Colin Farrell is. He gives, by far, the best performance in the movie. Johnny Depp will probably just play himself again whilst dressed as a poor man’s Voldemort. It would have been nice to have a different villainous opponent than before. Perhaps someone with a little charisma. Instead we have Johnny Depp doing an impression of Draco Malfoy’s anaemic paedophile uncle. Why would any follow him? Why would Dumbledore fall in love with the guy? Colin Farrell honestly looks like a better Grindelwald.
Also the plot twist is the Creedence is the Obscurial? Just having a red herring doesn’t mean your movie works as a mystery. If Creedence created an Obscurus by repressing his magic then why was he trying so hard to use magic? It’s a weird plothole. Is he hungering for magic or avoiding it? The movie never decides.
Also is this movie hinting that Ariana Dumbledore created an Obscurus before her death? It could be a nice link between the books and the newest movie.
Harry Potter’s magic as metaphor always comes across best when the author keeps her hand close to her chest. It was at it’s most cheesy when insisting that Harry’s mum saved him by loving him so much. The obscurus is clearly supposed to be a message about suppresion of emotion but it feels to awkward and upfront about it. Also, it seems extremely over powered.
The movie decides to have another escape from a ministry? Something that’s happened twice already in Harry Potter. It’s almost become a trope for the series.
Not that any of this matters. Any interest I had in seeing more of these movies died when Fantastic Beasts ended using the same convenient deus ex fix as The Amazing Spiderman. Really, the rain cures them all? That’s your ending?