The Harry Potter franchise was always going to continue after the seven books and their eight respective films. That was a given thing. And as far as possible franchise expansions go, a prequel taking place in an entirely different continent, starring fan favorite Newt Scamander, was hardly a bad choice.
So I wasn’t really upset by the notion of this movie going forward, but I was worried. Why? The Legend of Tarzan. Well, that and WB in general lately.
The Legend of Tarzan is another WB film that came out this year, courtesy of perennial Potter director David Yates. And that film was a mess in much the same way that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a mess. This was the inevitable result of asking the same director to make two high-profile franchise tentpole films at the same time, and I was genuinely worried that both films would suffer as a result.
(Side note: Do you recall that WB was also responsible for Pan, Jupiter Ascending, and The Man From U.N.C.LE.? Because I sure as hell haven’t forgotten.)
It also doesn’t help that according to rumor, A-lister extraordinaire Johnny Depp was cast for the sequel before this one was even released. Thus we know that the sequel is so far into development that regardless of how the first movie does, the second film and the franchise as a whole will have barely any time to course-correct. This is exactly the same type of foresight and strategic thinking that made the DC superfranchise such a slam-dunk success.
But there were some potential reasons for hope. To start with, it’s not like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place in a universe that had to be built entirely from scratch. It’s a known quantity, and there’s a whole army at WB by now that knows how to put these movies together. So that saves David Yates (who, to repeat, was working on an entirely separate film at roughly the same time) and the other filmmakers a bit of time and effort.
More importantly, this movie — and whatever sequels it may have — are not adaptations. That is huge. Not only does this mean that EVERYONE in the audience is coming in cold, but it also means that we don’t have to worry about massive cuts getting made in transition. It also means that sequels don’t have to worry about payoffs that get botched because of setups lost in adapting the previous books, which is a highly significant part of where the Daniel Radcliffe movies fell flat.
Given expectations inherent in the massive and fervently popular franchise, and given WB’s shaky track record with recent franchises, it’s hard to overstate how big the stakes were with this film. So how did it all turn out? Pretty well, actually.
To start with, the film takes place in 1926, at the height of Grindelwald’s campaign for wizard supremacy and the subjugation of Muggles. (Reminder: This is about twenty years before this particular dark wizard was famously defeated by Albus Dumbledore.) So the whole Wizarding World is on edge right now. Our stage is set in New York City, home of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (or “MACUSA”, which sounds uncomfortably like “Yakuza”). Yes, it seems that the wizards’ American capitol is located in New York and not Washington D.C. because why not?
Anyway, as if the global threat of Grindelwald and his followers wasn’t enough, the wizarding community of New York also has to deal with mysterious explosions and random acts of destruction. This has attracted the attention of Mary Lou Barebone, played by Samantha Morton. She’s a Muggle (I refuse to call her a “No-Maj” because that’s even dumber) who has somehow guessed that witches are to blame for all the recent chaos. Thus she’s started a “Second Salemers” campaign to hunt down and kill any witches. And because she runs an orphanage, she’s got so many children to indoctrinate and pressgang into her campaign. This gets about as much public support as you might expect.
And into this mess comes Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s arrived at New York for reasons known only to himself. Even worse, he’s brought along a suitcase full of magical items and creatures. To make a long story short (too late!), the suitcase falls into the hands of a Muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who accidentally releases a handful of the creatures inside. So now Scamander and his new friends have to recapture these animals before they contribute to all the other chaos going on.
Right off the bat, this is truly the role that Eddie Redmayne was born to play. I’m honestly surprised to be saying that, as I was never really a fan of his — My Week with Marilyn, Les Miserables, and of course Jupiter Ascending all failed to justify Redmayne’s status as one of the next big up-and-comers. Though he was admittedly quite good in The Danish Girl, and his Theory of Everything turn was extraordinary.
Newt Scamander is a character that enhances what worked in those latter two roles, such that Redmayne’s wheelhouse has now been firmly established as “eccentric and socially awkward genius.” His passion is so infectious that he effortlessly sells the character’s competence, his love for animals, and the magic surrounding him in general. Whether he’s talking breathlessly about his animals or rolling on the floor in a mating dance (yes, that actually happens, I swear to Merlin), Redmayne owns this role and commands the screen from start to finish.
The other major selling point is of course the titular fantastic beasts. They are truly the heart and soul of this picture. Every single one of them is expressive, beautifully designed, and bursting with life. There are even a few monsters (most especially the Niffler) that are so entertaining and fleshed out that they practically steal the whole show.
Moreover, while the movie never ever loses sight of how dangerous these monsters can potentially be when provoked or left without the care they need, they are nonetheless precious and must be protected. Moreover, Newt informs us — through a jaw-dropping extended tour of the massive habitat in his enchanted suitcase — that many of the animals are endangered because of poaching or trafficking. Some others are at risk simply because they’re feared or misunderstood by the world at large.
This a clever way of advancing a conservationist theme without getting too preachy. What’s more, it dovetails with the recurring “Harry Potter” message about second chances. That last point comes to a head in the climax, in which the immediate reaction of violence means that something potentially great could be destroyed forever.
Which brings me to the Obscurus/Obscurium/whatever. I’m not going to spoil too much about it, primarily because I’m not entirely sure what it is. Is it a beast? A human? Some kind of abstract phenomenon? It’s way too vague, especially given the pivotal role it has in the plot.
The other big problem concerning the beasts in general is with regards to the CGI. The effects on all of them are pretty uneven, and I’ve given up all hope at this point that anyone will ever make house elves that look right. Granted, the animals are all so otherworldly in appearance that it’s not like any of them could’ve been played by a man in a suit; and they’re all so constantly active that there’s a question about whether any kind of practical effects could’ve kept up. Even so, the strength of Redmayne’s performance — and the expressiveness of the creatures themselves — were often the only things to help sell the illusion that these were actual creatures taking up physical space.
Getting back to the thematic material, it bears mentioning that a rather prominent sequence is centered around the death penalty. This surprised me, given J.K. Rowling’s own vocal stance against capital punishment. Then again, the sequence makes an effective — and non-graphic, I really want to stress that — statement against the death penalty. Especially since — as with lethal injection — the process is just barely gentle enough that everyone involved can convince themselves that it’s totally painless and entirely humane.
All of that aside, let’s get to the supporting cast.
Easily the best of them is Katherine Waterston in the role of Tina Goldstein, a disgraced ex-Auror banished to some subterranean bureaucracy. Alas, the event that led to her dismissal is glossed over. Such a huge part of her character arc, and it’s not given anywhere near the screen time or detail that it’s due. Still, we know that Tina has a strong sense of justice and she wants her job back, and that’s enough motivation to be getting on with. It also helps that Waterston and Redmayne are both more than capable of selling their own individual characters and the chemistry between them.
But then we have Dan Fogler, in the role of the comic sidekick. To be clear, I appreciate how the plot went so far out of its way to bring a Muggle into the story as an active member. That’s not something we’ve really seen in the franchise up to this point, and it gives the audience a much-needed advocate now that Harry isn’t around to receive exposition on our behalf. Additionally, it’s a nice change of pace from how Muggles are typically portrayed in this franchise. Anytime in the books when we’ve actually met Muggles, they turn out to either be ineffectual (like the Prime Minister in the prologue of Book 5) or outright malicious (the Dursleys). Yet we know for a fact that magical folk can come from loving Muggle parents (see: Hermione Granger) and that Muggles can enter into lasting and happy marriages with wizards and witches (see: Seamus Finnigan’s parents). So to actually meet a Muggle character who’s so cheery and compassionate is a welcome change of pace.
That said, Jacob overstayed his welcome with me really quick. He struck me as a one-note character, not interesting enough that I wanted to know him better and not funny enough that he contributed any comic relief that felt necessary. He’s just a bumbling oaf from start to finish, and that got old fast. Especially since the character is established as a veteran of the Great War, and that was so much character potential totally wasted.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mary Lou Barebone, a Muggle character who was designed to be a serious existential threat to the wizarding community. Again, not something we’ve ever really seen in the franchise so far. Especially since Book 3 made it perfectly clear that the witch-burnings of old were entirely useless. But bless her soul, Samantha Morton made it work through sheer force of will.
Unfortunately, given her sweet demeanor, her penchant for cruel punishments, and her borderline-fascist obsession with authoritarianism and purity, it’s hard to see the character as anything other than a rerun of Dolores Umbridge. Who’s a fun character to hate and all, but I don’t think anyone really needed more than one of her.
On a similar note, we have Tina’s sister (Alison Sudol), inexplicably named Queenie. She’s a scatterbrained blonde who speaks in a high-pitched voice, with only the occasional wise moment of clarity in between rambling eccentricities. So basically, she’s Luna Lovegood. And don’t get me wrong, Luna was perfectly loveable as a tertiary support character, but a little of her definitely goes a long way. When a clone of her is elevated to the status of a crucial support character, she gets grating very quickly. It also doesn’t help that Tina and Jacob are pushed together into a romance that’s not only void of any chemistry, but only serves to reinforce what makes the two such pesky comic relief characters in the first place.
Oh, and Tina is a Legilimens, which means that she can hear other people’s thoughts. It’s a nifty plot device for conveying exposition without saying anything, and guaranteeing that Tina will always be exactly where the plot needs her to be at any given point.
As for Colin Farrell, I’m so glad the trailers have already given away that he’s the bad guy. Because seriously, one look at him and you know he’s going to turn evil at some point. Luckily, Farrell has no small degree of experience playing varying kinds of scumbag, and he’s more than talented enough to hold the screen and make the arc work.
Elsewhere, Ezra Miller does a fine job as one of Barebone’s adoptive sons. Carmen Ejogo plays the president of MACUSA (inexplicably a black woman in goddamn 1926), who basically just says “yes” or “no” as the plot demands. Jon Voight sleepwalks through his role just long enough to pick up a paycheck. Ron Perlman puts in a brief yet memorable appearance voicing a crime boss in some kind of speakeasy. Zoe Kravitz appears in a split-second cameo as a character who may be of no small interest to the die-hard Potterheads.
Oh, and that Johnny Depp casting rumor I mentioned earlier? It’s not a rumor. He shows up here for a cameo, and that’s all I dare say about that. Except that his character’s involvement leaves a couple of nagging plot holes sitting open.
Regarding the score, the iconic Harry Potter theme is present, but used in subtle ways. I was particularly fond of how the film opened with a few bars of the old John Williams theme, then transitioned directly into the new theme that James Newton Howard composed for this film. It helps to ease the audience into this new franchise, letting us know that this is still the same old world we all know and love, but we’re now entering a new part of it.
Alas, while the old orchestral feel is still very much in play, Howard went and put in some old-fashioned 1920’s American jazz in there as well. A tempting move, and an essential move, but done in a way that doesn’t remotely mesh.
So is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a good movie? Sure. The good parts are enjoyable enough, and even the flaws are pesky annoyances not bad enough to be dealbreakers. There are admittedly some notable problems with the plot, and way too many of the supporting characters were weaker than they needed to be. But a lot of that is redeemed by Eddie Redmayne’s performance, the menagerie of magical creatures on display, and the themes expressed in cleverly implicit and effective ways.
All told, I’d be perfectly happy to go on another adventure with Newt Scamander and his suitcase of wonders, especially if he could leave the other characters behind. Seriously, can you imagine a globetrotting film franchise in which Newt spends each movie going to different wizarding locations all around the world? Tell me that wouldn’t be awesome.