Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (2016) by David Yates
Review by Zach Dennis
I found the fantastic beasts, but something is still missing.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a very low bar to clear: it needed to be a movie that evoked the grandeur and majesty of Harry Potter while not being a repeat of the acclaimed series. For the most part, it succeeds. J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut and takes us to a new realm of the Wizarding World — 1926 New York — and the American community of magic folk.
But where the fantasy and wonderment re-capture our imagination and scratch the itch left by the Potter franchise, this spin-off lacks the characterization that had us clamoring for more from this world —and that could cause a wrinkle in its already planned long-term future.
Fantastic Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a Hogwarts outcast that travelled the world studying magical creatures and recording his findings (into what would become a textbook for the Potter characters to study). His journey takes him to New York City where he happens to get caught up into a caper with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who was exiled from the magical Congress in New York and is illegally keeping tabs on a group of fanatics interested in wizards and witches.
Among the group is Credence (Ezra Miller), who endures torture from his mother/cult leader (played by Samantha Morton) and is tasked with gaining intel on a mysterious girl by one of the Congress’ members, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), who he believes holds an untold amount of magic power.
For the most part, Fantastic Beasts sets-up a Harry Potter-esque plot with an all-powerful wizard named Gellert Grindelwald wreaking havoc on both the normal and wizarding worlds much like Voldermort in the parent series. That is all placed in the rearview though as Scamander loses some of his animals after being detained by the magical police and is tasked at retrieving them.
I think the biggest component holding the movie back is its worth. I understand that fans of the series would want to dive back into this world and because of that, it would seem insane for Warner Bros. to not figure out a way to make that happen. But at the same time, this just doesn’t seem to have the legs to warrant a return.
It really begins and ends with Scamander, who Redmayne portrays as a socially-awkward genius, whose lack of person-ability has kept him from really attaching himself to other people outside of those who see the greatness inside. But that doesn’t make for a likable hero, and by the end of the film, I was left wondering whether or not I really liked Scamander.
Not liking some of the other character was fine because the movie seemed to head in the direction of moving to different countries over the course of the series, but Scamander is the staple figure and there isn’t much that is all that interesting about him. Granted, I would say this is a quality that afflicted Harry Potter also as Hermione and other characters were much more interesting than Harry ever was.
In essence, he was a vessel for the story and I guess what separates that series from this one is that the story in those movies was just much more engaging. Exploring the wizarding world is fine, but the purpose behind it is lacking. We’ve done the all-powerful evil sorcerer before and had the social outcast trying to save the day so what makes it worth doing it again?
Rowling seems to be keen on weaving a social issue through-line to the story as the crux of this film’s plot deals with repression of one’s unique qualities and how keeping that bottled down can lead to lashing out. I’m not sure if I was reading into this too much or if Rowling was making a homosexual allegory, but it seemed valiant but overall flat.
But that could be said about the entire movie. Fantastic Beasts succeeds in its base goals, but never transfixes us like its predecessors did. It seems to suffer from a similar issue as superhero movies in that it forgets to construct an engaging story amidst the wonder happening around it.
We will always marvel at the magic that this series presents, but I think this first entry in what will be a five-movie series should give us pause to ask: what is just so fantastic about this whole thing?