It’s here! It’s here! Fantastic Beasts is here! But does it hold up to the exceptional standards of creativity Potter fans crave?
Yes and no.
As a die-hard Harry Potter Fan, my hopes were high with this prequel series. My overall takeaway is that Fantastic Beasts is a good—not great—film that sets up sequential films and plot lines nicely.
As it is difficult to speak about this film without giving away spoilers, I will share the non-spoiling bits first, and then alert those of you who haven’t seen it yet before launching into specific plot points.
NON SPOILER REVIEW
Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920’s New York and, boy, does that come across well. I love the grunge and the cramped spaces and the hard times mingled with a sense of possibility. The look-and-feel of the film pulls you in from the start. You want to soak up the period atmosphere and all that comes with it. It really is a shame that the camera moves so quickly; you barely get to see any of the detail in each shot. For example, the opening montage of newspapers flies by so fast you can barely read the headlines—and you may even get nauseous in the attempt. Even so, my imagination was pricked by what I caught, and I grew even more curious about what the Wizarding world in America had in store.
The film follows the path of Newt Scamander, an English ex-Hogwarts student who arrives via steamship with a mysterious suitcase containing a wide collection of magical creatures. Almost immediately, chaos ensues, beginning with the escape of the wily niffler which, as we learn from Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in the Harry books, is attracted to shiny, valuable objects. The audience giggled along with the niffler’s antics, watching it stuff the contents of a bank safe into its little pouch. I approve of the niffler design, a distinction I take seriously being married to a character designer. I likewise approve of many of the other creatures in design, though their CG animation often seemed forced and cheap. You’d think after all of the disastrous Star Wars prequels that Hollywood would have learned not to forgo props and puppets in lieu of pure CG, but alas. Many of the interactions with the fantastic beasts looked off, lacking in texture and weight, a shiny creature juxtaposed with the gritty city background. When the actors “touched” the creatures, it simply failed to look at all real. It’s like watching TV dramas where people hand each other coffee cups that are clearly empty: we knew the Fantastic Beasts actors weren’t really holding anything, let alone funky bird snake things.
To speak generally of the story, I most appreciated the suspense created; I definitely needed to find out what and/or who the mysterious “Obscurus” was. Many of the characters, especially Newt and Graves, had a mystique that drew me in. That said, many of the other characters could have been better developed, particularly Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. Like many of the later, original Harry Potter films, subtlety of character, plot, and what I will call “world establishing” is lost to action sequences and flashy special effects. This is a shame, as anyone who enjoys the books knows that it is the characters who drive the story, not the flash-bang magic they produce. I would have liked very much to know more about all of the characters in Fantastic Beasts, find out what motivates or frightens them, see them struggle to work together, and be in on their inside jokes. These are the nuanced choices filmmakers can make (though they rarely do these days) that mean the difference between a World War II flick and Casablanca. Hopefully the next films in the series will do more to establish character motivation and stimulate audience empathy.
SPOILER CONTENT: DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE HARRY BOOKS!
Ok, so for viewers who have already seen the film, let’s get into the nitty gritty.
My absolute favorite thing about this movie is the concept of the Obscurus. This is because, or so I deduce, it is a subtle allusion to Albus Dumbledore’s back story and the tragedy that eclipsed his childhood. As the story goes, Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana was driven insane by muggle boys who taunted her, leaving her unable to control her immense magical power. Dumbledore’s brief friendship with Gallert Grindelwald ended in a disagreement about Ariana, and their ensuing duel resulted in Ariana’s death. Fantastic Beasts names Ariana’s condition and describes it as a kind of possession by a creature called an Obscurus, known affect children forced to subdue their magical powers instead of learn to control them. To use this source of power as a motivation for the Grindelwald character was brilliant. It ties in the Dumbledore/Grindelwald history to this budding American story with nuance and intrigue.
As strong as that plot device was, however, the film suffered from many missed opportunities. For starters, I had hoped there would be elements of the American magical world that were, well, more American. The totalitarian structure of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) simply mimicked the Ministry of Magic. There could have been more of an emphasis on individual liberties and identities, or even a “screw you” attitude among American wizards that, for better or worse, would make an American wizard feel like an American. There could also have been different spells used or more discussion of the American wizarding education and the way it influences the culture. In other words, an extension of the wizarding world into other other countries could be fascinating, but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy. That said, it would take a lot for that to happen with me.
Another small criticism involves the use of the memory charm at the end. It made no sense. For one thing, movie fans and book fans alike remember that the charm works on wizards just as well as muggles, so why aren’t the local wizards forgetting everything? Second, is it only working on people who get wet in the “obliviating” rain? If so, that causes many problems, as most New Yorkers would have been indoors. Third, why does Newt have this potion in his pocket and why can that bird thing release it perfectly to enchant the rain? Too deus ex machina for me. Surely we can come up with something better.
Again, overall, the film holds up well, and can entertain anyone from wizarding newbies to raving fanatics like me with its lovely visuals, suspense, and occasional jokes. That said, being entertained is not the same as being moved, and I think the film could have done the latter with a bit more polish and exposition and fewer flash-bang action sequences. Hopefully, though, this first film will serve as a platform for great things to come. Fingers crossed.