It’s hard for Hollywood to let sleeping dogs lie. No good franchise can stay dead for too long.
This doesn’t mean that every sequel, prequel or reboot is doomed to failure. Some, like Captain America: Civil War and Mad Max: Fury Road are actually pretty good. Some, like Independence Day: Resurgence, are decidedly not so. Where does Fantastic Beasts lie on this spectrum?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them returns to the well of J K Rowling’s Wizarding World, shifting the focus from Hogwarts to 1920s New York. It features an all-new original screenplay by Rowling herself. For the first time, fans get to experience the magic of Harry Potter onscreen without knowing all the details beforehand. This, along with the new, star-studded cast, gives the franchise a rare chance to make a second first impression.
An Original Story That Stands On its Own
To Fantastic Beasts’ considerable credit, the film’s story successfully stands apart from the original series. Its 1926 New York, populated by both Model Ts and dapper-looking wizards and witches, is imbued with nuance and originality. The all-adult cast gives the story more elbowroom to leave behind teenage angst and focus on darker themes. There are nods to and metaphors for magical equivalents of animal cruelty, abandonment and segregation.
The magical creatures are the real stars of the show
This mature take, however, doesn’t mean that Fantastic Beasts is devoid of the charm of the original series. The menagerie of magical creatures featured throughout the movie drive the adorable quotient up to eleven. Take the Niffler, for instance. It’s a mole-platypus hybrid that greedily hoards all things glittery and shiny. There’s also the Erumpent, a massive rhino-hippo hybrid that’s in heat and searching desperately for a mate.
One of the best scenes of the movie features Scamander giving a tour of his travelling zoo/conservatory that’s bigger on the inside. It puts Rowling’s vibrant imagination on full display. In fact, Fantastic Beasts as a whole showcases why Rowling is still one of the most imaginative writers alive today. It’s been eight years since the Deathly Hallows came out, but she still hasn’t lost her touch when it comes to the Potter mythos.
David Yates is another returning veteran that brings some much-needed experience and familiarity to the film. This is his fifth film in the Potter franchise. The film’s colors are muted, a nice callback to the grim atmosphere of the last few movies. This does feel a bit jarring in some parts, given that Fantastic Beasts affects a sincerer disposition during many points of the story.
The Muddled Plot Leaves Much to Be Desired
As refreshing as the setting feels, however, the muddled plot weighs down the film and stops it from being great. The film tries to cram in three hours’ worth of plot in its two-hour run time. There are multiple plotlines running simultaneously.
The film tries to cram in three hours’ worth of plot in its two-hour run time.
The main characters trying to catch the escaped creatures ala Pokemon generate a lot of whimsy and humor, as you would expect. However, balancing that with the grimness of issues like domestic abuse and wizard politics doesn’t always pan out. The core premise of the movie and the eventual main threat by its end are tenuously connected. The plot often relies on a comedy of errors for things to turn out the way they do in the film.
Often, Fantastic Beasts tries too hard to lay the seeds for the future of its new five-movie franchise. The pacing of the movie is also a bit too frenetic. The characters move from point A to B to C to keep the plot moving, often in overblown set pieces that result in wanton destruction. In fact, the climactic showdown in Time Square gives the Battle of Hogwarts a good run for its money.
The Characters, though Interesting, Have Little Room to Breathe
This skewed focus on epic moments and worldbuilding leaves little room for character development. Newt Scamander’s quirkiness and affection for his creatures makes him likable enough, but he lacks the conviction and magnetism expected of a good protagonist.
Scamanader’s well-bodied No-Maj (non-magic) sidekick, Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is probably the standout of the cast. His earnestness and determination make him endearing, and he gets a nice arc of development throughout the movie. The sweet mind-reader Queenie (Alison Sudol) also makes a good first impression. However, she has less wiggle room in the character department compared to Kowalski. Queenie’s sister, the disgraced Auror Tina (Katherine Waterson) feels a tad too glum and vulnerable to be competent in her job.
The cast does well with what it’s given, but there’s little room for character development.
To the cast’s credit, they do well with what they are given. Seeing Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne perform a humorous mating dance at the Central Park Zoo was a delight. Dan Fogler conveys Kowalski’s wonderment at magic well, giving the audience a good outlet for rediscovering the Potterverse. Colin Farrell tries his best to affect a shrouded and menacing performance as the powerful Auror Graves. Unfortunately, he has little material to draw from and make his mark.
Fantastic Beasts excels when it slows down and gives its character enough space to interact with each other. A dinner scene in Queenie’s apartment is an early standout, as is Scamander showing off his zoo to an awestruck Kowalski. These scenes, however, are few and far in-between.
Despite its litany of shortcomings, Fantastic Beasts rarely fails to entertain. It’s a promising first entry in the new wizarding franchise. Fans and newcomers alike will be wooed by the film’s creativity, exciting visuals and the feeling that, in this magical world, anything can happen.
It’s a good movie that’s let down by a weak plot and shoddy character work. However, it’s a decent stab at exploring more complex and mature themes in the Potterverse. It will be interesting to see how this franchise transitions from adolescence to adulthood over the next four movies.