I’m so glad J.K. Rowling decided to bring us to the U.S. with the next installment of the Harry Potter universe (I say with some sarcasm). Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is also kind of a mess. Let’s explore.
NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Stop reading now if you want to watch the film.
One thing I’m never a fan of in storytelling is setting up your main character as both timid and intimidated by nearly everyone around them. However, if there had been just one timid character in Fantastic Beasts, I might have given this trope a pass. Unfortunately, the timid characters extend to practically every role in the film. The timid characters include Newt Scamander (the timid oddball hero from Britain who randomly shows up in New York), Porpetina Goldstein (the demoted Auror who’s as timid as the day is long), Credence (a timid teen with a surprise), Queenie Goldstein (outgoing yes, but timid) and Credence’s witch-hating adopted sister (didn’t even catch her character’s name, but still timid).
I’m fine with a story using a timid trope if the character eventually emerges from their timid cocoon to take on the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Fantastic Beasts.
Unlike Hogwart’s, where you plainly expect the students to be timid and intimidated by the teachers (who are clearly years ahead in magical learning), this trope fails to work in Fantastic Beasts where these magical folk should all be pretty much on even footing. Because these are adults and not children (with the exception of Credence and his adoptive sister), this trope fails so badly as to drag down the entire first half of the film.
No. When I see a movie, I expect the leading characters to eventually emerge as take charge individuals. Not only do they need to express conviction in what they are doing, they need to stand up for it and take charge of their actions and of those around them. This is especially true of the hero. In Fantastic Beasts, that never really happens. Which leads to…
Because this story is so light on character development, we are lost with character names, what most of them do and why they are even there. While the place has been established pretty much up front (i.e., New York City), the film can’t help but break one of the cardinal wizarding rules, made so abundantly clear in the Harry Potter films, within the first 10 minutes of Fantastic Beasts… exposing the wizarding world to muggles and letting them go without ‘fixing’ it.
Worse, they start off by discussing nomenclature (“muggle” versus “non-mag”) as though we should run into all sorts of these Americanisms. Yet, later in the film, Percival Graves (the on-again, off-again villain) clearly uses the word ‘squib’ without thought. One could argue it wasn’t Percival Graves during any part of the film. However, if the US folk are calling muggles “non-mag”, then clearly they should be calling “squibs” some other word.
Let’s just say that the first half of the film was a mess. It was all over the place. First, it was about Grindelwald terrorizing London. Then it transitions to be about finding and catching Fantastic Beasts that Newt accidentally lets loose in New York… after he bumps into a non-mag named Jacob who he exposes to magic, first by wand, then by disapparating. And, that’s not even the half of it. Because one of his beasts bites Jacob, he befriends Jacob and takes him ‘home’ (to heal him) and then into his suitcase (which is one of those spaces that’s larger inside than out).
Again later, it transitions to be about an Obscurial (a witch or wizard who doesn’t know it, usually a child). The repressed magic becomes a dark force that can damage or kill.
We’re exposed to many different concepts all at once, but that keep being thrown at us without any full understanding of why any of it’s happening. On top of that, we have all of the timid characters who refuse to take charge of their own situation. They just sit back and watch from the sidelines only occasionally becoming a participant in the action around them when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they stand there with head hung low like they’re waiting for a scolding.
At about the halfway point, the pace starts to pick up as some of the pieces finally start falling into place, not just for the characters, but also for the audience. Yet, even though we have a rousing pace that’s pretty much relentless until the end, you still feel more like you’re watching something from the Marvel universe than something in the Harry Potter universe. It just felt too disconnected and too distant from what we came to know of Hogwarts. Is the American wizarding world that much different?
I liked the second half of the film, but the neat and tidy ending combined with the timid characters left me flat on the characters, the character development and ultimately the hodge-podge story. If it was all just a setup to expose Grindelwald, then that could have been accomplished in so many better ways. For this franchise, I’ll reserve my judgement and hope that a second film might turn out better. For a franchise opener, I guess it’s alright. I was just hoping for a lot more. I certainly got a lot more out of the first Harry Potter film than I got out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Your mileage may vary.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars