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
After getting back from seeing this film (twice), I felt it needed some discussion. So, let’s go. Note, this may contain Harry Potter spoilers.. so do not continue if you haven’t seen or read. You have been warned.
The book to movie conversion was done reasonably well. This movie, like most that have preceded it, have missed the mark on certain aspects. What makes a Harry Potter book good is all of the nuances that J.K. Rowling includes. Most of these nuances and subtleties just can’t be placed into the films and Half-Blood Prince (HBP) is no exception. You would think that by 6 films into this series that the die-hard critics would understand and be used to all of the missing things. Unfortunately, they aren’t and they are still complaining about this same aspect. Critics, get over it. If you want an exact conversion, do it yourself or wait for a TV series version.
Yes, there were a lot of small subtleties that were left out of the movie. Some of them can’t easily be filmed and others just don’t work for the story. However, there were some things that were left out of the films that I felt were important to understand. Like, for example, the apparation classes in Order of the Phoenix (OOTP) that were completely left out of that film. By leaving it out of OOTP, it means that this can’t be easily taken advantage of in HBP. So, when Harry apparates with Dumbledore, it’s a surprise to everyone. Yet, we would have already seen this in OOTP if it had been in the film.
The one thing that is noticeably absent from HBP is the Dursley family. Gone is Little Whinging. Other than cursory mention of it and a background street scene, there is nothing in the film. Granted, I haven’t read the HBP novel since it came out, so I don’t even really recall how much of the Dursley’s were in the novel. Note that I haven’t re-read the novel because I wanted to go into the film without having recently read the book. I find that I enjoy the films more this way. I will now re-read the novel having seen the film.
While I generally liked HBP, I felt that the movie wasn’t as thrilling or as much a rollercoaster as OOTP. The Order of the Phoenix was one of my least favorite books in the series, yet it turned out to be one of my top favorites in HP films. Why? Because they were able to turn the lackluster pacing of the book into a spectacularly paced film. Half-Blood Prince’s pacing is a bit too even and, frankly, slow. There was not enough going on in most of the scenes, even when there was something going on. Instead, HBP relies more on cinematography to pull off the slow paced scenes. In most cases, it does so quite well. This film was beautifully filmed for the most part. For the same reason that many critics filmatically liked Prisoner of Azkaban, I’d say those cinematography critiques also fit with Half-Blood Prince.
Unfortunately, the pacing was far too lackluster throughout most of the film to give the necessary emotional power needed after Snape does his deed in the Astronomy tower. So, you really don’t feel emotional at a time when you need to. The whole thing feels very detached. I think part of the problem is that Dumbledore wasn’t given enough character build-up throughout the films to provide the necessary emotional attachment in this film. In other words, we really needed to see just how dear Dumbledore was to everyone to really get the sense of loss. Even still, this film should have been able to set it up enough to give that emotional punch at the end even when the previous films failed in character building. I also believe that this is part of the reason so many people weren’t completely convinced of the death at the end of the HBP novel.
Because of the lack of the emotional ending and the lack of the necessary rollercoaster ride needed for this film, it leaves the experience a bit on the flat side. There was plenty of teen angst moments throughout much of the film and that is probably the thing that carries this film. We definitely needed to see that part of the story to fully understand what is about to happen in films 7 and 8 (assuming book 7 is still planned as a two-part film), but we also needed the emotional impact to feel for the character we’ve just lost (and that didn’t happen).
I liked Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, but not as much as the Order of the Phoenix. OOTP is better primarily because the intensity level was much higher than HBP. There were a few tense moments in HBP, but nowhere close to OOTP or even Goblet of Fire. I also felt that for what’s about to happen in Deathly Hallows that this film needed to ratchet up the intensity and failed to do so. Whomever is directing Deathly Hallows will have to ratchet up the intensity in that film rather than relying on HBP to do it.