Harry Potter joins The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars as franchises with unecessary prequels. Does Fantastic Beasts manage to justify its existence? No. No it does not.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) is a fantasy adventure film set in the world of Harry Potter, directed by David Yates (Order of the Phoenix to Deathly Hallows Part 2) and written by JK Rowling herself in her screenplay debut. It stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, an awkward magical zoologist who comes to New York on a mysterious mission during the height of Dark Wizard Grindelwald’s attacks on the magical world. After a series of mishaps and a number of Scamander’s creatures escapes his suitcase, he must work together with disgraced Auror Tina (Katherine Waterson), her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and muggle Kowalski (Dan Fogler) to get them back before they expose the magical world.
Not the magic you know
References to Dumbledore and Hogwarts notwithstanding, this is a completely new side of the wizarding world that has yet to be explored. And with JK Rowling at the helm, my optimism for this film (even if I still don’t think it needs to exist) was peeking as the lights began to dim. Unfortunately however, the magic of the original franchise has not carried over to this prequel. While certainly not bad, its also not very good, and is never great enough to justify that this story and time period really needed to be explored.
Now to the crux, the plot itself. Newt’s plight to recapture a number of escaped beasts allows for a shallow dive into the American wizarding world, and for the most part maintains a relatively playful tone that keeps the briskly paced film entertaining throughout. The issue is however the two interweaving narratives. On one side of the film is Newt’s goofy escapades, but the rest follows the mysterious and sinister Auror Graves (Colin Farrell) as he investigates the anti-magic group known as the Second Salem, headed by the cruel Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) and her shy adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller). So one moment you’re watching Scamander doing a mating dance to try and tame a giant rhinoceros, and the next a young boy is being beaten by his abusive adopted mother. Its a tonal disapparity that hurts both storylines, makes the film feel disjointed, and overall hinders the whole experience. This is quite possibly the darkest Harry Potter film yet which simply does not work when the main conceit is following adorable little creatures around New York City. And on top of all those tonal issues, the third act of Fantastic Beasts just outright sucks. It gave me flashbacks to (shudder) Green Lantern and ends with a Deus Ex Machina so lazy I was flabbergasted that Rowling wrote it.
“Yer not a Wizard Kowalski”
But now onto the part that fans are likely going to attach themselves to the most – the characters. And while the quartet here is decent, Harry, Ron and Hermione this ain’t. Eddie Redmayne is all the right kinds of goofy and awkward, but in many ways he still feels wasted. Films like The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl proves that this guy has serious talent (Jupiter Ascending aside) and seeing him stuck as a one-note character is rather disappointing. But now onto more positive things and my personal favourite new character Kowalski. A muggle (or no-mag in ‘Merica) getting drawn into a magical problem is something we haven’t seen before and Fogler does a good job both conveying the incredulous wonder and confusion that a muggle would have in these circumstances, while also just being outright likeable and fun. Tina the disgraced Auror doesn’t fare as well unfortunately, being a weepy stick-in-the-mud for the group that never really gets to shine or make an actual impact. Her sister Queenie however is much better, playing the Luna Lovegood-type here as a witch who can’t help but constantly read everyone else’s minds.
As for the rest of the cast outside of the main quartet, its a bit hit and miss. Colin Farrell plays sinister Colin Farrell, but he does it well even if the film gives him the short-shrift in the end. Mary Lou, the head of the Second Salem is an interesting idea, but isn’t given much to do other than hate-speech and abuse Ezra Miller. Miller’s character Credence is a real sore spot for me too. Anyone who’s seen We Need to Talk about Kevin (and everyone who hasn’t absolutely should see it) knows that Ezra Miller can play a disturbed teenager to an incredible level, but here he does almost nothing more than look at the ground, whisper a bit and then yell during the climax. Completely and utterly wasted a talented actor, which is a massive shame considering Miller has already proven he could turn what was a one-note character into something far better.
Where’s the visual magic?
Now onto the visuals. There is a literal tonne of CGI covering this film, and I would argue a tad too much. A few practical effects go a long way, and the fact that looking back I still think Deathly Hallows Part 2 had better effects is not a good sign. The big plus for so much CGI however is the marvellous creature design it allows Rowling and Yates to indulge in. Gaping at the many wonderful magical monsters in Newt’s suitcase is as close as this film comes to capturing the original series’ sense of wonder and a few designs like the blowfish-tigers and the platypus-looking Niffler are geniunely inspired. As for the overall direction however, I think its a little stale. One of my few criticisms I have of the HP films directed by Yates is that they feel like their direction was constructed on a conveyor belt – Yates just never achieved a sense of style in the same way Alfonso Cuarón did with Prisoner of Azkaban, and Fantastic Beasts suffers even more so than his other films. For a blockbuster it looks fine, but the wondrous cinematography and magical (hehe) long shots are just lacking.
Now I have been rather harsh on this film, but following on from such a beloved franchise, Fantastic Beasts has high standards to live up to. And pure and simple, it doesn’t. While its fine, and I’m not disappointed I saw it, it didn’t make a big enough impact to justify this films existence – not to mention the four bloody sequels we’re going to get. Here’s hoping that the narrative missteps are just growing pains for Rowling’s first screenplay, and the subsequent movies manage to recapture what made the Wizarding World so special in the first place.
General Audiences: Meh
Film Buffs: Meh
True Believers (HP diehards): Recommended