Finding Fantastic Beasts

Engineered to set up a decade of movies with built-in brand loyalty, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was an enormous hit that left little mark. Is it worth a second look?

by MATT STOKES | APRIL 10, 2018

Between incredulity at the prospect of a 100-page book written to benefit a charity being turned into five movies and the controversy surrounding Johnny Depp’s casting, it’s been hard to think of the Fantastic Beasts series of movies as a series of, well, movies. The first movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was released in 2016 to positive reviews and healthy box office returns, with $800 million in tickets sold worldwide. Still, what discussion there has been about the film generally centers on extratextual concerns. The movie itself is an afterthought.

And with good reason. Ideally, a Harry Potter spinoff could stand on its own even if Harry Potter had never existed. But the selling points of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are that it takes place in the Potter universe, is written by J.K. Rowling (in her screenwriting debut), is directed by David Yates (director of the final four Potter films), and retains much of the stylistic trappings of the Potter movies—the very beginning of the movie opens with the Warner Bros logo in the clouds giving way to the movie’s title, as “Hedwig’s Theme” swells on the soundtrack, as if to say, “Miss Harry Potter? This is almost as good!”

But there are some inherent difficulties in presenting a “Harry Potter Universe” story that does not involve Harry Potter. “From J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World,” a caption above the title on the Fantastic Beasts poster reads. The Blu Ray’s spine shows this new branding’s “WW” logo:

It’s clunky, especially when compared with the Star Wars spin-off movies, which can easily affix “A Star Wars Story” to any title and instantly communicate what the movie is. This might seem like a minor point, but it’s the immediate lens through which these movies are viewed—Harry Potter, without Harry Potter.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a wonderful title, but it suggests something entirely different from what the movie is. It’s reasonable to expect an adventure movie through the Wizarding World(TM) with little connection to the Harry Potter story other than the magical elements and imagery. The film opens with a montage of newspaper headlines about Grindelwald, a key figure in the history of Harry Potter the series and Harry Potter the character. From the very beginning, it’s clear: Fantastic Beasts is not a spin-off—it’s a prequel.

But how is it as a movie? As easy as it would be to dismiss it as cynical franchise expansion, it has a lot to recommend it. It shows a fascinating world at an intriguing point in time, and it’s well worth exploring.

Is it a good sign when a movie requires multiple viewings to be enjoyed?

Some films reward multiple viewings, but others require it. Fantastic Beasts is the latter kind—it improves with each viewing because it’s easier to track all the confusing elements that, in a better movie, would be more elegantly handled. The movie starts with a big problem it never addresses: The Harry Potter stories were set in a vast, dense world explored gradually over seven books and eight movies and through the point of view of a character, Harry, who was a newcomer to the world and acted as an audience surrogate. Fantastic Beasts jumps right in, and even though this is technically the same world as the Potter movies, its being set in 1926 makes things very different. The technology and architecture of the magical world tend to be Victorian or older, so in the 1990s/2000s setting of Potter it was an obvious distinction, but in Fantastic Beasts it’s not always clear.

The remedy for this blurriness would be to center the story around an outsider character coming to this world unaware. As played by Eddie Redmayne, Newt Scamander is the opposite of what the story calls for. Even though he is a newcomer to America and he mentions several times how different America is from Britain, this difference doesn’t seem to amount to much other than the words for non-magical people being different. If the story were told from the point of view of non-magical baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), things would make a lot more sense. Instead, we jump back and forth between the A-plot of Scamander hunting for his missing creatures and the B-plot of Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) checking out the damage wrought by an unnamed creature, presumably one of Newt’s. This means we don’t get to see Jacob’s orientation into the world of witchcraft and wizardry; instead he has a half a second of, “Wait, what??” before easily accepting that magic exists and the rules of the universe he grew up knowing are wrong.

Love that Niffler! 

Another solution to clear things up without holding the audience’s hand would be to dole out the magical elements more judiciously, but Fantastic Beasts just jumps right in. And by throwing so much onscreen at once, much of it loses its charm. This is especially true of Newt’s magical beasts. Individual creatures like the Niffler (a platypus obsessed with gold and jewelry) are fun and cute on their own, but instead the movie crams them all together. A centerpiece sequence takes place within Newt’s enchanted suitcase and has him showing his animals to Jacob—it’s essentially an adaptation of Fantastic Beasts the book, which is basically a glossary. The movie wants you to be swept away in the majesty and splendor of its fantastic beasts, but it comes across more as CGI Mad Libs. “Check out this buffaloctopus!”

Making things even more confusing is the mingling of the movie’s two plots, where the monster wreaking havoc on New York is revealed to be an Obscurus, and also Newt has an Obscurus. What exactly an Obscurus is is never satisfactorily explained. Newt has one in his suitcase, and his creatures keep getting out… but his Obscurus is harmless, he says, plus, “Obscurials” (a different word meaning a different but related thing) never live past the age of 10… it’s all gobbledygook that would no doubt have made perfect sense in a 700-page Rowling novel, where it could have been teased, explained, and eventually deployed in the narrative the way she is so expert at doing. In the end, the two plots don’t have anything to do with each other—they overlap, and eventually converge because the characters from each storyline literally keep running into each other, but they seem to be occupying separate movies.

It’s the storyline involving Colin Farrell’s Graves character (revealed in the end to be Grindelwald in disguise) that the franchise as a whole seems much more concerned with. The second film’s sweaty title is Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and the trailer puts Grindelwald and Young Dumbledore (Jude Law) front and center. Clearly the franchise wants to tell the story of the events that lead to Harry Potter, and if so it should lean into that and move on from the “Fantastic Beasts” concept. It’s hard to care about Newt Scamander’s quest to locate his missing beasts when Wizard Hitler is at large in New York at the same time. The film ends with nothing of consequence having happened—even Scamander’s famous textbook about where to find the fantastic beasts was already researched before the events of this movie. This story was just a detour.

All that being said, the movie has some utterly charming moments. As Jacob, Dan Fogler is brilliant, striking the right balance of humor and wonder. He thinks the magical world is awesome; when he sees Newt climb into his ordinary-looking suitcase and disappearing into the floor, his reaction is to emit a high-pitched laugh. Just as good is Alison Sudol as Queenie, a flapper who can read minds and make a mean strudel. Their rapport is one of the strongest parts of the movie, and their farewell in the rain as Jacob’s memory is Obliviated is surprisingly understated and graceful.

Eddie Redmayne, too, is quite good as Scamander. He gets that the character is an oddball, and he is appropriately standoffish and aloof. He is obviously a person more at ease with animals than people. He even acknowledges that he’s not in the right role as a hero when he tells Jacob that people don’t like him because, “I annoy people.” (Also seems like meta commentary on public opinion of Redmayne’s squinty-squirmy acting style.). But as with Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the quirky/eccentric hero should have a “straight lead” to play off of—he doesn’t quite work as the centerpiece of a traditional adventure story.

There’s also something off with the movie’s tone. The cut-away scenes of anti-magic activist Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) physically abusing her children at her Dickensian orphanage seem like they’re from a different movie, and it’s jarring to shift back to caring about Pickett the Bowtruckle.

But the real culprit is composer James Newton Howard, whose score is exactly wrong. During a scene at the Central Park Zoo late in the movie, Newt and Jacob have tracked down a loose Erumpet (a bulbous, luminescent rhinoceros thing), and Newt does a silly mating dance to try capturing it. This should be a funny scene, but the score switches from John Williams-esque wonder to slasher movie to Jack sketching Rose in Titanic.

All of this has come across more as more negative than I intended. I’ve now seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them three times, and enjoyed it more each time. It is filled with great moments big and small. The movie does an excellent job of vividly showing both the radiance and griminess of 1920s New York. A scene in a magical speakeasy with a seedy goblin gangster is unlike anything seen in the Harry Potter movies, in a great way. And there is an exchange where Newt and Jacob discover they both fought in the First World War (World War II having not yet happened, they say “The War”)—it’s a fascinating idea that the film wisely doesn’t linger on.

In the end, the film is all parts, no whole. But it was made by a capable director and stars an appealing cast, and I’m intrigued by where the franchise is heading. I would prefer that it veer away from what we already saw in the Potter films, rather than give us more of the same. But if that’s all we ultimately get, I’ll take it.

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