Oh there’s beasts here alright, but they aren’t fantastic!
Look, that’s probably not the worst joke I could have made, okay? Could have been way worse. Be thankful that it wasn’t.
DIRECTOR: David Yates
PRODUCERS: David Heyman, J.K Rowling, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram
WRITER: J.K Rowling
INITIAL RELEASE: November 10 2016
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
STARRING: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell
So, Harry Potter: you know it, I know it, everyone friggin’ knows it. Harry Potter is a cultural phenomenon in the truest sense of that phrase, having developed into an absolutely monolithic goldmine of endless merchandising and insanely high-grossing box office smashing films. So naturally, one might imagine the prospect of a whole new franchise of Harry Potter-based films would be enough to make any Hollywood exec’s pants exceedingly (and inappropriately) damp. Well apparently, so did J.K. Rowling, and so here we are with the first of five new films, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1926, decades before the events of Harry Potter, and follows British wizard Newt Scamander (Redmayne), who comes to New York looking to buy a gift. Scadmander, of course, also bought his magical case full of whacky creatures and (of course) they get loose. Alongside bumbling canning factory worker and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski, disgraced witch Porpentina “Tina” Goldsmith (Waterson), and her sister Queenie (Sudol), Newt tears a path through new York trying to wrangle back his magical beasts before they blow the lid on the whole “secret wizard” deal Harry Potter’s always got going on.
As you may have already guessed, I’m not exactly a Harry Potter fan. While I’ve seen a handful of the movies and enjoyed them well enough, I haven’t read the books and most of my overall knowledge of the Harry Potter universe is 10% what my friends tell me, and 90% memes. So why see something like Fantastic Beasts? Well because I sorta wanted to get in on the ground floor of a new Harry Potter craze, and I figured Fantastic Beasts would be my chance. As it turns out, I might have chosen somewhat poorly.
Now that’s not to say that Fantastic Beasts is a poor film, cos it ain’t. It is a perfectly solid, competently executed fantasy film…that feels like it should be more. Much of this goes down to the script: while not poorly put together, there’s so much of this film that often feels plodding, bloated, or meandering. Worse is the fact that the actual conceit of the film’s real plot doesn’t actually become even remotely clear until towards its end, leaving us with a film that feels directionless for entirely too long. There were far too many scenes that left me not confused as much to what happened, but why it was even happening in the first place, and that’s not generally something you want. And yet even in spite of all the meandering, there was so much that just felt underdeveloped or glossed over: Fantastic Beasts throws a lot at you, and much of this doesn’t get much breathing room. This even goes as far as some of the films bigger plot points, which aren’t even fully set-up enough to achieve their full effect. I think if I were to fully surmise the script in its entirety, I would say that it hits all the right beats well enough, but there’s just something lacking: everything just feels a little empty.
Besides the bloated plot and story, another element that lets Fantastic Beasts down is its characters. Now that’s not say that there aren’t any interesting characters, both Kowalski and Tina prove to be delightful and endearing, and also two of the only characters that don’t come across as a complete flat line. The same can’t be said for leading man Newt Scamander, for whom both characterization and performance feel flat and underdeveloped. I’m not entirely sure what Eddie Redmayne was going for with his performance, or indeed what Yates’ direction was going for, but the end result is a very thin “eccentric British man” stereotype with very little else going on in the way of development and depth, and often times free of the charm that’s meant to be the crux of that aforementioned “eccentric British man” stereotype. It’s a shame that Newt took the protagonist reigns given that both Tina and Kowalski would have been far better suited for the role, being the only characters with a reasonably defined character and narrative arc, but oh well. Both Fogler (Kowalski) and Waterson (Tina) give fine performances that imbue their characters whit a lot of charm and depth. Waterson especially was attention-grabbing in her performance, which once again makes me bemoan the fact that Newt’s the protagonist. Props also have to go to Ezra Miller (aka The Flash) for his performance as Credence, which proved to be the most effective performance in the entire film. As for everyone else, the performances tend to range from competent to forgettable.
On the flip side of things, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t lack for imagination, and it’s definitely the film’s greatest strength. The titular “fantastic beasts” are suitably fantastic looking, and wonderfully imaginative. There’s one little critter especially that makes for the film’s most entertaining scenes, as well as a fine source of comic relief. Overall, any scene that’s centric on the actual beasts themselves tend to be the film’s highlights, with enough creativity and solid execution to be thoroughly entertaining.
I was really hoping to get swept up in a magical adventure with Fantastic Beasts, but thanks to an unfortunate combination of a spotty script and flat characters, I just couldn’t get into anything that was happening. It has all the elements to be great, but lacks the spark of something truly inspired. Fantastic Beasts will likely please Harry Potter die-hards and children, but otherwise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t a film I would be rushing out to catch.
Which is just as well, cos its already been out for like three weeks.