Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review

Posted: November 26, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

fantastic-beastsWritten by Daniel Simpson

Right before seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two in theaters, I remember having a conversation with a friend who was a huge fan of the series. While she was excited to see the final film, she also lamented the fact that it meant the end for the movies. I sympathized with her, but I also pointed out that it was pretty cool the series would actually end. Most movie series see endless sequels or reboots until becoming unprofitable, whereas Harry Potter would get to close out with some dignity. Little did I know Warner Bros. had to go make a fucking liar out of me. The same year that they dusted off and rushed Batman back onto the silver screen, WB decided to not only release the Potter prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but they also announced that film to be the first in a five part series.

I’m not going to lie, I went into Fantastic Beasts with a pretty skeptical outlook. The Harry Potter franchise was a billion dollar industry for Warner Bros. for a decade and I’m sure it was even more crushing for that gravy train to cease just a year before Christopher Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy finished up. Disney has also proved with Marvel and Star Wars just how profitable a shared cinematic universe can be. A shared “Potterverse” seemed like a desperate attempt to capture a similar trend. The fact that the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts would be written by J.K. Rowling was of little comfort to me given that Rowling’s post-Potter efforts have generally been met with apathy. In short, all signs pointed to Fantastic Beasts as being made less in an effort to expand the mythology of the series, but more to recapture the glory and success of yesteryear. All that said, I did try to go into the film with an open mind. The reviews were fairly solid after all and in the thick of a busy semester, some magic and escapism seemed like a good way to spend an evening.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is set in 1926 and is completely unrelated to the major story beats of the original Harry Potter series but nonetheless occurs in the same world of witchcraft and wizardry. The film opens with British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York with a briefcase full of fantastical creatures of all forms. After a mix-up at a bank, a few of Newt’s creatures are let loose in the city, risking exposure of the magical world to the Muggles, or No-Majs as they are called in America. This is, of course, outlawed in the magical world, and to make matters worse, Newt is also attracted the attention of a specific No-Maj named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger). This catches the attention of demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who becomes involved in their quest to reclaim Newt’s beasts. Elsewhere in New York, high ranking Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) has secretly been causing destruction while seeking a magical anomaly for unknown reasons.

For all my complaining, the filmmakers do make some strong decisions in terms of doing a new film in the “Potterverse”. This isn’t a sequel following the adventures of Harry’s kids and it also isn’t a direct prequel depicting events that we already know more or less exactly what happens. The film is set long before the main events of the universe, and the film also avoids most of the pandering references these sort of things tend to fall back on. There is no scene, for example, where we get a glimpse at Harry’s grandfather as a young child. The film even situates itself in a fairly novel setting, given that it’s in the 20s and also gives as our first glimpse at America in the wizarding world. All of these are good decisions, and yet, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is still something of a failure. What it comes down to is the story, which is both a jumbled mess and yet also very empty.

Regarding the first point, Fantastic Beasts feels like two different movies slapped together; one about the titular fantastic beasts and another about a new evil wizard and their dastardly plot. These two stories do intermingle, but not in a way that feels natural. In fact the first third of the film is almost solely dedicated to the antics pertaining to Newt’s various magical creatures. When the more villainous plotline emerges it feels like a different movie. It would have been better to focus on one of these ideas. Either make a movie about Newt’s globetrotting adventures as he finds more creatures, possibly centered around is prior romance that’s alluded to, or make a movie about lowly Auror Tina discovering an evil conspiracy and rising to the occasion. In addition to this tension of plots, there are other elements which are set up for seemingly no reason, including whole thing about Jon Voight’s character and his relationship to his two sons. In a novel, details like this can help fill out the world, but in a film, they stand-out as being awkward and a pointless use of screentime.

The other crucial problem is that beneath the film’s messy screenplay is an ultimately hollow story. The main villain’s overall goals are fine, but the details of his plan in this movie pretty vague and ill-defined. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I’m not sure why Graves needed the magic anomaly in the first place. He seemed pretty effective at causing mayhem on his own. There’s also a twist at the end of the film regarding this character, but it doesn’t really amount to much nor does it mean anything. I suppose hardcore Potter fans might get more of a kick out of this reveal, but in the context of this story it’s kinda pointless. I get the feeling the film is mostly just introducing this villain to be used in later films, and that’s fine, but he should also do something of interest in this film too. Otherwise, Fantastic Beasts serves to introduce a new cast of heroes and they’re…mostly fine I guess. I see some potential in them, particularly Katherine Waterston’s Tina, but the characters aren’t especially interesting and they aren’t given much in the way of arcs. Comparatively, I think we saw a lot more growth out of the trio of protagonists in The Philosopher’s Stone then we do for these guys in their first film.

I wouldn’t say I hated Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Returning Potter director David Yates does solid enough work behind the camera, some of the creature designs are pretty fun, and the set-pieces are alright, if unexceptional. However the core story is a mess and simultaneously lacking in substance. Consequently, I found myself bored for large stretches of the film, which is pretty bad when you consider this is supposed to escapist spectacle. I don’t doubt that this series could produce some interesting stories down the line (the lore suggests some good things), but this first entry is disposable.

D+

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