For at least a decade now, one of the largest criticisms of the film industry has been its inability to create anything new and original. Sequels, prequels, adaptations of preexisting properties, remakes, rehashes; anything but brand new ideas. Disregarding the fact that there’s plenty of terrible original films that grace screens nationwide and a seemingly unending stream of independent films just waiting for people to view them, it’s easy to complain about safe, big budget studio movies being forced down our throats on nearly every media platform known to man. A new symptom of these gigantic blockbuster anthology films and the universes they create is the ability for new stories to be told within the already established rules and lore of said universe. We’re collectively going to see at least one of these every other year by way of the Disney-backed Star Wars universe, starting with Rogue One, but the Harry Potter universe got the first shot with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
If there’s a heads up I can give anyone who’s reading this review with hopes of it helping them decide whether or not they’re going to see this movie, it’s this: Fantastic Beasts is two dichotomically different films smashed into one another. The easiest way to explain that with reference to the previous Harry Potter films is that parts of the movie feel like the first two in the series (Sorcerer’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets) while the rest feels like the last two (Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows) and while none of that is bad alone, it does create a strange tone. The film is definitely at its best when echoing the whimsy of the early Harry Potters and at its least enjoyable and most confusing, otherwise.
Fantastic Beasts get its name and a barely-there plot point from a faux textbook written by J.K. Rowling in 2001. While this book doesn’t provide anything in the way of story for the movie to follow, it does introduce us to Newt Scamander, author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and main character of this movie. Mr. Scamander is a magizoologist, and his focus in life is the documentation, preservation and understanding of magical beasts which, in part, is what brings him to America. Played by Eddie Redmanye, whose bumbling English charm positions him nicely to be this generation’s Hugh Grant, Newt Scamander is as enigmatic as he is infuriating much like the Beasts he sets out to find. Between invisible monkeys, shape shifting snake birds, anthropomorphic twig men and kleptomaniac platypuses, Fantastic Beasts definitely put its title characters on wonderful display.
The rest of the cast, while far from super stars save for Colin Farrell, is serviceable and play their characters entirely period specific. Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1924 New York City and what’s interesting is it’s very American take on what was up until this point an entirely British magical world. The movie does a good job highlighting those differences with everything from subtle changes to magical terms to the international academic rivalry between wizarding schools. And I would surely be remiss if I didn’t mention Dan Fogler’s hilarious portrayal of the sad clown motif as Newt Scamander’s non-magical sidekick and new best friend.
Newt manages to stumble into an ongoing magical tragedy which serves to introduce us to the rest of the main cast but also begins to create the narrative divide in the movie. The majority of Fantastic Beasts’ billable cast are part of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) who are essentially embroiled in a civil war being fought for the direction of the wizarding world in America. When these plot forces come together, a new battle for the soul of this movie comes through with mixed results. Nearly everything that has to do with the Magical Beasts and the subsequent finding of them is wonderful and as whimsical as anything seen in the Harry Potter universe. Redmanye’s portrayal of his love for these creatures and his willingness to make a bit of a fool of himself in the process is genuine and endearing. The ragtag crew of fellow fantastic beast finders he draws to himself are also all delightful and the ensemble they create is where the majority of the fun of this film is. There’s just a lot of darkness in this movie that I think will surprise most people.
In the last month before Fantastic Beasts was released, news spread about a huge movie star playing a pivotal character from the Harry Potter universe and that this movie would be the first in a potential five-part epic. While the casting wasn’t necessarily what gave me pause, the announcement of the character being related to these films at all absolutely did. And as the more American aspects of this film began to unfold, it became more and more clear that the darkness in this films was lubricating us narratively for what was to happen in the succeeding films. Much in the same way that an origin film is a vehicle for the sequel, Fantastic Beasts was made in a way to prepare us for the next film in the series. This approach took what would’ve essentially been a period piece exploring another part of the Harry Potter world, and turned it into a hopping off point for another series. What could’ve been a unique and enjoyable standalone adventure became a pilot.
I don’t fault the production team for thinking ahead with this property. The Harry Potter franchise is gigantic and adored worldwide. Kids that grew up alongside Harry are probably having kids of their own now, ripe for introduction to the wizarding world, starting the cycle anew. And trust me, being a huge HP nerd myself, I’m chomping at the bit to delve deeper into the universe, and being a lore hound as well, the subjects and timeframe they seem dead set on exploring are incredibly exciting. What bothers me is that certain filmmaking aspects, from the narrative construction all the way through to the marketing scheme, seem to have superseded the making of a tonally consistent and enjoyable film.
If you’ve been a fan of Harry Potter since the books started coming out, go see this movie. If you’re only a fan because of the movies, you’ll probably enjoy Fantastic Beasts even more. All the polish and charm that Warner Brothers has honed over the production of the eight movies prior to this one are on full display, and the feeling of fantasy I got when I saw Harry flying on a broom for the first time nearly 15 years ago definitely flashed at times while enjoying this movie. Where this movie fall shorts is its lack of literary cache to keep more discerning viewers from deconstructing the narrative. With adaptations, you’re constantly, if not subconsciously, comparing the two versions, waiting for the next beat or hoping that they pull off a set piece the way you envisioned it in your head. Fantastic Beasts instead hopes to pull you through a confusing magipoltical drama by reminding you what you came here for: the Beasts.
This review is coming to you from a very spoiled perspective. As a fan of the series in its entirety, I’ve had the luxury of devouring it at every accessible point: the books, the movies, the theme parks, etc. The series has always meant a lot to me and while it isn’t without its flaws, I’ve come to expect a lot from those who curate its legacy. Fantastic Beasts is a fun movie that brought me back into that world for another few hours and showed me a lot of things I’ve always wanted to see. I just wish that the story, which was written by J.K. Rowling herself, paid more attention to what it seemed like the movie was going to be about. Maybe the marketing is more to blame than the writing, and maybe I’m becoming more cynical and critical as time goes on, but I can’t help but wonder if this movie was subverted by that all too familiar critique of the current state of the film industry, where even an attempt at something original can end up being the same old thing.