Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

We may not be getting a new Harry Potter book written by J.K. Rowling anytime soon, but the next best thing has arrived in the form of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, is the wizarding world as interesting without any of the signature Harry Potter characters at the center of the story?

The short answer is not exactly, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a thoroughly entertaining extension of the magical franchise, one with just enough wonder to get by, some captivating performances (despite underwhelming characters), and the promise of a build-up to something absolutely epic. Get some extended thoughts on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them after the jump, and chime in with your own reaction in the comments, but beware of MAJOR SPOILERS for the movie from here on out.

Where Fantastic Beasts succeeds is in its expansion of the wizarding world, and that’s because J.K. Rowling knows this place inside and out. Moving the action to the United States allows us to see a different kind of magical community, and we learn plenty of new details about how witches and wizards operate in the US. This includes how their relationships with Muggles (or No-Majs) are discouraged in every regard, which is different from how they’re approached in Europe (who always seems to be ahead of the US culturally), but most importantly, how poorly treated and disregarded misunderstood magical creatures are.

We learn about the variances in the American wizarding world by way of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who has never been to the United States before. Of course, his trip takes a turn for the disastrous when his faulty suitcase, which also ends up being mixed up with a similar suitcase carried by a factory worker/aspiring baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), ends up unleashing several of the magical creatures he’s been studying on his journeys around the world and taking care of in his magical care facility inside of said suitcase.

The reason Newt Scamander’s magical beasts escaping in the first place is such a big deal is because times are tense as the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) has been trying to spark a war between the wizarding and non-magical worlds. And Scamander’s escaped beasts have the potential to reveal the wizarding world in a destructive way. The problem with this concept is that Newt Scamander’s story ends up being much more tangential to the story that J.K. Rowling seems much more keen on telling, which follows the efforts of Gellert Grindelwald to rule both the wizarding and non-magical world based on a sense of entitled superiority. He’s basically the Magneto of the magical world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

This makes most of what happens with Scamander mostly inconsequential to the larger story, and that’s despite becoming involved with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror trying to prove herself to the government superiors at MACUSA (the US magical government) by tracking Scamander and his irresponsibility regarding his magical creatures. Now that’s not entirely careless on the part of J.K. Rowling. After all, there are plenty of stories that begin with the main character being in the right place at the wrong time. But seeing how that plays out in Fantastic Beasts makes it difficult for me to see how Newt Scamander will continue to be a key player in this franchise without it feeling extremely forced, and thus makes him feel dispensable and not worth investing in as much as the creatures he takes care of.

Anyway, the good news is that the wizarding world is still full of wonder. The new creatures introduced inspire true awe, and most of them are more interesting than the humans, witches and wizards we meet, especially the cute, larcenous little Niffler. This isn’t due to the fault of the performers, all of which are top notch in the movie, but rather just a sluggish pace and lack of captivating personalities for most of them. For me, the most satisfying dynamics come from Jacob Kowalski (the No-Maj) and Mr. Scamander, as the two spark an unlikely friendship. In addition, the other relationship I came to love was the one that sparked between Jacob and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), a gifted Legilimens (mind-reader) and total heartthrob who is the sister of Tina Goldstein.

Part of the problem is that most of these characters either aren’t very likeable (with the exception of Jacob and Queenie), or they only work in small doses. Eddie Redmayne does a fine job being a quirky, socially awkward wizard. And while it’s good to see a main character who isn’t like every other hero out there, sometimes it was just a little too much to suffer through for extended periods of time. Scamander even says people find him annoying, and while it’s somewhat in an endearing way from the outside looking in, it’s not entirely desirable.

Meanwhile, the auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is interesting only because his motivations are a mystery, but he doesn’t bring much personality to the table the way a character like Severus Snape or Lucius Malfoy did. The same can be said for all the shortsighted government employees, including the MACUSA president, the high strung but determined Tina Goldstein, and the endlessly creepy Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the adopted son of a woman (Samantha Morton) who is an activist firmly against witchcraft and trying to make No-Majs aware of it. They feel like one of those creepy cult families, and though you end up feeling bad for the kid, it’s more about what’s inside of him as a plot device than who he is as a character, despite a praiseworthy performance by Miller.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Speaking of which, this is perhaps where Fantastic Beasts falls short as far as the fantasy adventure is concerned. The most exciting sequences in Fantastic Beasts come when our main characters have to track down, chase and ensnare the escaped magical creatures. Every single one of those sequences is more exciting than the climax of the movie when Credence is discovered to be harboring an Osbsurus, a dark magical force that arises in witches and wizards who hide their power. And in this case, since Credence was forced to keep his power hidden due to being adopted by an anti-witchcraft No-Maj, this dark force is off the charts powerful

It’s all a metaphor for homosexual or transgender instincts being more dangerous to a person than being true to who they are, which is a great thematic device. But it plays out in a way where the villain just becomes a destructive flying wind, and we all saw how that worked out similarly in Green Lantern. While the force is deadly and dangerous, there’s no clear understanding of how it can be stopped. The stakes just aren’t there, and when it’s all revealed to serve as a way to bring Grindelwald to the forefront of the franchise (he’s been disguised as Percival Graves this whole time), as surprising as the reveal is, it cheapens everything else around it, making this feel like a pilot for the rest of the series rather than a fully formed standalone movie.

Outside of this shortcoming, this still feels like a Harry Potter movie thanks to director David Yates, even if it’s a little less polished, sometimes sluggish, and doesn’t have quite the same personality. There’s still a lot to enjoy, and plenty of promise for the future. While it does well in emulating the darker, more mature tone of the later Harry Potter movies, we probably could have done with a little more whimsy, a little more color, and a little less set-up for future movies would have been preferable (though I did enjoy the more inside baseball references that come from names and allusions to future events that those who have read the Harry Potter books are more keenly aware of).

There’s promise in this franchise, but I hope rather than just searching for fantastic beasts, next time J.K. Rowling digs a little deeper to find something more we can latch onto besides magic and creatures in general. It also couldn’t hurt to have a score that was a little more memorable.

Now it’s your turn. Sound off with your comments on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Was it better than you expected? Are you excited for the sequels? Did you like any of the characters? How badly do you want a Niffler? Tell us everything!

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