Not quite as fantastic as the sum of its parts, but much more fantastic than expected.
I’m going to level with y’all up front: I did not expect to be writing this review. I knew I was going to blog about the first entry in the Harry Potter prequel movie series (cue wailing alarm bells), but more out of a sense of obligation than genuine interest. Having covered all the books and the ill-advised distant sequel, I felt strangely honour-bond to go along for the ride, and bought my ticket treating the ten euro expense as basically wasted money.
That’s markedly not how I felt walking out of the cinema two hours later. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them has a lot of flaws, but an absence of fun is not one of them.
The setup is that it’s 1926 (the same year Voldemort was born, which I assume isn’t a coincidence) and the previously-unseen magical community of the United States is on high alert due to a number of factors: the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is rumored to be hiding in New York after committing a series of attacks in Europe, a mysterious destructive force is threatening muggles (called No-Majs in American parlance, but I’m going to keep calling them Muggles because “No-Maj” sounds stupid) and a group of religious fanatics called the Second Salem Revival Committee is trying to stir up anti-magic sentiment all across the city.
Into this powder keg steps Newt Scamander, a socially-awkward British magi-zoologist with a suitcase full of illegal creatures. A comical switcheroo involving a muggle’s similar-looking case leads to several of the creatures escaping, which both provides the perfect cover for the dude who is clearly Grindelwald in disguise to try and harness whatever force is haunting the city, and brings down the ire of MACUSA, the creepily Big Brother-esque magical government of the country.
This is basically two different stories welded awkwardly to each other, and the film’s biggest flaw is that it never quite manages to bring its disparate parts together into a cohesive whole. Newt’s pursuit of the titular beasts is very obviously a one-and-done episodic adventure hiding the strands of a larger ongoing plot, which in theory is fine–that’s how the books operated, and most of the time they managed to pull it off fairly well–but Fantastic Beasts and Where They’re At suffers by not really doing anything with that ongoing plotline beyond announcing the fact that it exists. At the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone you knew that the next six books were going to be about Harry facing off with Voldemort, because they were narratively joined by the murder of Harry’s parents; here, none of the characters have any connection to Grindelwald or any obvious reason to get involved with his shenanigans in the future, unless the extremely vague hints at some sort of tragic backstory on Newt’s part pan out to something more significant.
None of which detracts too much from the fact that the individual components of the story are pretty great. Each of the escaped creature makes for both excitement and humour as Newt bumbles around trying to get them back (my favourite being a scene where he hilariously trashes a jewelry store while trying to hunt down an adorable mole thing that’s obsessed with shiny objects), and it’s a change of pace for the series to feature action beats that don’t involve people dramatically stabbing wands at each other.
The Second Salamers and their creepy-as-fuck leader provide the requisite darker aspect to the story, far more effectively than Voldemort’s goons ever did, including aspects of child abuse that make Harry Potter’s treatment at the hands of the Dursleys seem laughable by comparison. In fact the movie as a whole features some scenes that take a lot of the whimsy out of JK Rowling’s setting. I bet you never thought the wizarding world featured grim Room 101-style execution chambers, but Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find The Fantastic Beasts is here to break the bad news to you.
But the real standout component of the movie is Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, the muggle who gets a hectic introduction to the magical world as a result of being dragged along in Newt’s wake. This is something the Harry Potter franchise has never really tackled before–we know from glancing mentions in the books that some muggles, such as the parents of Hogwarts students, can be permitted access to parts of wizard-land, but this was never explored in much detail. Fantastic Beasts and In Addition Their Locations therefore breaks refreshing new ground by choosing to focus heavily on a muggle with no connection to magic coming into contact with the hidden world of wizards, providing a story thread that starts out endearingly funny and ends with genuine poignancy, as Jacob struggles to prevent his memories of the incredible things he’s seen (and the friends he’s made) from being wiped.
These are some fairly disparate plot threads, and while I complained earlier about their lack of narrative cohesion, there’s no doubt that the movie manages to balance its tone admirably. The later Potter movies seemed to be in an arms-race with each other to become as dour and joyless as possible, whereas FBaWTFT maintains a sense of fun (example: a big dramatic slow-motion action scene late in the movie that involves a cockroach being thrown across a room) even as it introduces setting and story elements that are arguably darker than anything in the books. The story is also completely lacking in the apathy and burnout that characterized Deathly Hallows and The Cursed Child; clearly, Rowling is once again telling a story she’s excited about.
I’ve spent the last thousand-odd words being mostly positive about the story, but unfortunately FBaTFTFGWJHEWG is a movie and not a novel, and in its more filmic elements it falls down.
Back in my mammoth Potter-post I complained that the latter movies were plagued by wooden performances and strange line deliveries, and I wasn’t sure whether this was the fault of the actors or David Yates’ directing and editing choices; F4ntastic Beasts exonerates the cast, as those problems are just as bad despite Yates being the only remaining common element. Characters still have lifeless, stiff conversations filled with awkward pauses, important expositionary information is still delivered via mumbled off-screen dialogue, and more subtle attempts at humour still fall flat. Yates can direct an action scene or a big emotional beat like nobody’s business, but he seems to struggle any time he has to direct two people having an ordinary conversation.
I also question the long-term viability of the story going forward. Grindelwald is appropriately menacing and seems like he could be a good villain for a five-movie epic when he’s pretending to be someone else, but then he turns into Johnny Depp cosplaying as a cross between The Penguin and Darth Vader without his helmet, which looks exactly as stupid as it sounds. Are the other four movies really going to be about Newt Scamander battling this puffy-faced jackass? We know from The Lore that Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald and had an actual personal connection to him, so why not just start telling that story?
Regardless of those concerns, I am on board with this opening installment in a way I never thought I would be. In fact, I may have become a cautious fan of this burgeoning franchise. I’m just as surprised as you are.