I didn’t love Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but before I explain why I want to briefly reflect on how we got here.
Earlier this year, it seemed as if every film I attended came with a special Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trailer featuring an introduction by J.K. Rowling. It was less a trailer about Fantastic Beasts, specifically, and more about invoking our collective nostalgia for Harry Potter, opening with that familiar John Williams musical score as on-screen text proudly declared “J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. invites you back into the world of magic.”
To be honest, it was pretty darn effective. Simply hearing that music on the big screen again induced a practical Pavlovian response in me, as if I was instinctively reaching for my wallet to present it to the movie gods and submit to their whims. “Just take my money now,” I thought, swept up in memories of prior Harry Potter moviegoing experiences (e.g., dates, midnight screenings, family outings).
Obviously, that involuntary giving of money on my part and others like me is entirely the reason Warner Bros. wanted to make Fantastic Beasts in the first place, and why what was first announced as a brand new trilogy has just in this past month been converted into a pentalogy (i.e., instead of just 3 of these films there will now be 5). However, Fantastic Beasts cannot be so easily waved away as a cynical business venture.
All of the chief behind the scenes creatives are back, from producer David Heyman to director David Yates to J.K. Rowling herself, making her screenwriting debut. The money WB (which has built its entire future around Harry Potter, Lego and DC) is throwing at them is no doubt enticing, but so too is the challenge to expand upon the Harry Potter universe in a truly unprecedented way.
There is no source material to draw upon here other than a little-known recreation of one of Harry Potter’s textbooks which Rowling created for charity in 2001. That textbook, credited to Newt Scamander in the wizarding world, is simply a history/encyclopedia of the world’s magical beasts. Fantastic Beasts the film, on the other hand, is the story of how Newt (played by Eddie Redmayne as a cross between his pre-ALS version of Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything and Matt Smith’s Doctor at his sadder moments) almost caused a war while making a pitstop in New York City in the 1920s before writing his book.
As such, this is an entirely original story from Rowling’s mind which we are sampling for the first time through film. We can’t simply Wiki-read the plots of all the novels to find out what happens next, as those who refused to read the actual Harry Potter books would often be tempted to do after every new movie. No, similar to where we currently stand in the Game of Thrones world we are all experiencing this for the first time together. To hardcore Potter nerds, this unprecedented trip back into this beloved universe is surely too tempting to pass up, especially as it teases us with a potential answer to the nagging question of what life is like for wizards in America (at least was like for those wizards in Jazz Age America).
WB clearly succeeded in prying money away from me (and many, many others), but I won’t be so easily swayed by the forthcoming sequels because Fantastic Beasts turns out to be a remarkably flawed franchise re-starter, dragged down by considerable pacing issues, underwritten characters, a disjointed story which struggles to connect its primary parts and nagging sense that none of it truly matters (spoiler: beware the magic re-set button).
That’s not to say it’s a complete failure or is unpleasant to watch, not when the clear hard work put in by the army of designers and artists pays off so beautifully with the titular beasts which populate the story. Plus, the production designers have produced a version of 1920s America which is so sumptuous and rich in detail you will absolutely want to step into it and walk around. However, there is more disappointment here than expected.
The problems with the film are apparent from the get-go as we are shown a very brief glimpse of what appears to be a truly epic wizard duel before a parade of newspaper fly by, detailing a war being waged by someone named Grindewald against the wizarding community. He’s apparently the Voldemort of his age, though his quest is less Hitler and more about inspiring the wizarding world to come out of hiding and reveal themselves to humanity. However, why is this the first thing we are seeing? It’s not exactly like the Harry Potter movies never indulged in a spinning newspaper headline or two (e.g., Dolores Umbridge’s arrest in Order of the Phoenix), but never to open the movie, never as a shortcut to set up the entire story.
We shouldn’t be watching a parade of newspapers; we should be watching Newt reading the newspapers on the boat into New York City. That might not sound particularly cinematic, but it would better contextualize the stories. How does our lead character feel about all of this? How does it impact him?
As first screenplay sins go, this opening is forgivable, but Rowling repeatedly shows similar signs of not quite knowing how to tell her story through film. For example, not having interior monologues to lean on robs her of vital characterization, resulting in an overabundance of moments of characters simply looking at each other (that is on the rare occasions they ever even make eye contact) and barely conversing. In your head you can imagine Rowling’s voice telling you what the characters are thinking in the moment, or at least what Newt’s thinking, but very little of that is up there on the screen. We get that Newt is akin to a socially awkward scientist who embraces beasts precisely because he struggles to make friends or even communicate with people, but apart from the hint of a failed romance in his past we never truly understand why. We are similarly left in the dark about most of the supporting characters.
Moreover, while The Deathly Hallows novel proves Rowling can write one of these stories outside of the familiar “it’s all just one year in Harry’s life at Hogwarts” formula she’s far less successful in her efforts here. She has challenged herself with Fantastic Beasts to craft a multi-faceted narrative which appears to be a seemingly innocent tale of a socially awkward wizard having misadventures in New York with a human (a scene-stealing Dan Fogler) and two witches (Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol) while tracking down his escaped beasts but is really about the way his misadventures tap into the simmering tensions between wizards and humans.
However, these two sides of the story never organically gel. Instead, it often feels as if the movie Newt and his friends are in is not the same one Ezra Miller (as an abused human who wants to be a wizard), Colin Farrell (as a possibly corrupt investigator in the wizarding community), Jon Voight (as a William Randolph Hearst stand-in) and Samantha Morton (as a puritanical leader of a movement against witches and wizards, even if the rest of the world doesn’t believe they exist) are in. That might be (and probably is) entirely the point, but it still comes off as terribly disjointed with no real sense of flow or forward momentum.
There is undoubtedly a deeply satisfying story to be told in the sequels, which will incorporate a younger Dumbledore and won’t necessarily maintain a focus on Newt as the central character. We have mere hints of it here, nothing more. Instead, Fantastic Beasts is at its best when Newt and friends are racing around Central Park, infiltrating jazz clubs which function as the Harry Potter world’s version of the Mos Eisely cantina and making Hagrid-esque speeches about defending those poor creatures the rest of the wizarding world misunderstands.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Fantastic Beasts should be regarded as Exhibit 1 in the argument that not all great novelists can also become great screenwriters. However, it has enough charm that I don’t necessarily want to obliviate myself (i.e., wipe this film from my memory). Plus, it is worth remembering how long it took the Harry Potter movies to come into their own. Here’s hoping we might some day look back on Fantastic Beasts the way we currently regard Sorceror’s Stone – as a pleasant, but flawed beginning to something which eventually exceeded all expectations.