Here’s a confession: I’ve only seen one Harry Potter movie, the first one. Before the release of the first spinoff film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I went back and forth on whether or not to just dive in and watch all of the Harry Potter films. Eventually, I decided not to delve into the wildly popular wizarding world and evaluate Fantastic Beasts on its own merits. So that is my disclaimer as to my perspective in this review of director David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. If you’re looking for a lengthy discussion or wild theories about how this film may tie into Harry Potter, you’re not going to find it here.
Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1926 New York City. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an awkward wizard having just arrived in America. He’s brought with him in suitcase a collection of magical creatures, which he aims to preserve and study despite the fact it’s frowned upon in the world of wizardry. When Newt’s suitcase winds up in the hands of the kindhearted, would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Newt’s immigration status comes under fire from Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), an officer in the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). However, Tina’s status with the MACUSA isn’t in the highest standing and her warnings are ignored by her superiors Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). When Jacob unwittingly unleashes a variety of magical creatures onto the streets of New York, Tina and Newt, with the help of Jacob and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) begin their hunt for this rare species that could shatter the shaky truce between people called “No-maj,” regular non-magical people or what are commonly known as “Muggles,” and the wizards.
There’s also a destructive force that hasn’t been unleashed by Newt, and Percival is hot on the trail of trying to figure out the cause of this destructive force. A stern woman and adoptive mother of many children, Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), leads a fanatical anti-witchcraft campaign across the city with her loyal son Credence (Ezra Miller) beside her. With the dark wizard Grindelwald on the loose, there’s so much more than just some loose creatures that endanger that ever-shaky truce.
Especially for an outsider, Fantastic Beasts has a lot moving parts and story threads that seem like they have their eyes out for future installments. It’s a real testament to the film’s production design and the screenplay adaptation by J.K. Rowling that the film works as well as it does. For much of the film’s ample running time (it’s well over two hours), Fantastic Beasts is a lot fun that balances its lush visual splendor with some fascinating themes and ideas that move at a brisk pace and typically with a laugh or two to lighten the mood. For a film that has a lot of expository dialogue, it’s quite impressive that the film moves as well as it does for the most part without really slowing down to a deadening slog.
It’s the climax where Fantastic Beasts really hits its most noticeably underwhelming moments. Concluding with a lengthy battle of some ethereal villain (it’s like they decided to deviate from the shut down the portal cliché by making the heroes just fight portal), the final act of Fantastic Beasts is so generic that it almost undoes all the magic and wonder that preceded it. All of the unresolved threads become painfully apparent and the film’s lack of villain with clear motivation hampers the CG-slathered spectacle that’s supposed to close this first chapter of a five-film series. Then the film proceeds to wrap things up with a ridiculous reveal that had me roaring with unintentional laughter before lumbering about to four different endings. So much of the movie is overflowing with whimsy and fun that it’s simply a shame that Yates and Rowling couldn’t stick the landing.
Redmayne is good in the leading role, though his endless quirkiness grows a bit tiresome after a while. I honestly wonder if Redmayne is capable of acting like a normal individual, but I guess it’s all worked out for him so far. Katherine Waterson, also a wizard, doesn’t have any the bizarre mannerisms that Redmayne has and gives the film its most assured performance. Surprisingly, Dan Fogler gives a remarkable performance that gives the film much of its empathy and some good comedic timing. Other supporting actors have their performances muddled to script issues, like Colin Farrell’s role is lacking in character motivation and Jon Voight appears as a newspaper mogul for some odd reason. It’s hard to complain too much about the shortcomings of a film when Ron Perlman makes an appearance as a goblin gangster and nightclub owner.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them hits on some interesting notes about environmentalism through Newt’s devotion to the studying and preservation of his magical creatures. But the most fascinating theme to emerge from the film stems from the cautionary tale of fervently fanatical Mary Lou and her adoptive children. The film is rather explicit that if you aim to violently repress a child’s true nature it may unleash a form of darkness and destruction that may know no bounds. It’s not hard to see this as open indictment at conversion therapy, the barbaric practice of trying to “cure” gay youth that often leads to suicide. Between this film and this summer’s The Legend of Tarzan, Yates is certainly hitting some interesting thematic notes with his genre blockbusters, often scratching much deeper than the surface would suggest.
Having directed four out of eight of the Harry Potter films, director David Yates is obviously comfortable playing in the expansive world that J.K. Rowling has created (and he’s signed on for the other four movies in the Fantastic Beasts franchise). With its lush visual style, fascinating themes, and real sense of magical wonder, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a pretty good start to a further expanding universe. I think I just might have to watch those other Harry Potter movies now.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
An entertaining and whimsical spinoff of the Harry Potter series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them overcomes its noticeable flaws with a gorgeous production design and a lot of magical fun.