I remember fondly my first Harry Potter experience. I was in third grade, and I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because I was bored and didn’t have a book to read during independent reading time. Within two pages I was hooked. My dad started reading them at the same time, so we raced to finish the series. I beat him (sorry, dad, for hiding your books) and I earned the right to watch the movies. My favorite characters were Sirius Black and Hermione Granger.
I think a lot of people have that feeling of nostalgia, excitement, and glee when they hear the words “Harry Potter.” Even the words “J.K Rowling” can whip up a firestorm of emotions for die-hard Harry Potter fans.
But this isn’t a Harry Potter movie. This is a movie about a young Magizoologist named Newt Scamander, and his adventures in the American magic world. Can he wiggle his way into our hearts the same way The Boy Who Lived did?
The answer is no.
The weakest part of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are the characters. Now I know, these characters are going to be around for four more movies. But even in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first movie/book, you already knew various things about each character. Harry was brave, rash, and kind, and curious. Hermione was not just smart but courageous, stuck-up, and loyal. Ron was funny, insecure, and refreshingly average. But these characters? I only know one or two trait for each. Newt (Eddie Redmayne) loves animals, and has hair that has more personality than he does. Tina (Katherine Waterston) is like Hermione… but more unappreciated? Queenie (Alison Sudol) is blonde. Jacob (Dan Fogler) is overweight. The orphanage lady (a wasted Samantha Morton) is secretly (and stereotypically) cruel.
That’s it. Those are all the endearing characteristics of the characters (some of whom) I have to spend four more movies with. Oh, and none of these characters develop. In fact, there is really no message or moral at all to the story, beside general goodness and please keep your animals in your cages. There is a background political message about fear and tolerance, but it doesn’t get the screen time it deserves and the message is what we’ve seen from the Harry Potter series.
The relationships don’t build at all- Newt takes to Jacob because he’s.. Dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Queenie falls in love with Jacob because he’s dumb? And nice? And bakes stuff? And Tina and Newt become good pals because after Tina tries to arrest them he realizes she is actually nice? And pretty? And uses magic to bake stuff?
Those are too many questions to have for a two hour movie that has a middle section that feels like four. The film doesn’t feel long because there are a lot of good scenes, it feels long because all the long scenes are spent on dumb scenes. There is not a single full scene explaining Credence’s (Ezra Millers) backstory and connection to Graves (Colin Farrell), but there sure is one of Eddie Redmayne trying to seduce a Fantastic Beast and at that point I’m asking, Where do I find the exit?
If these characters are still appealing to you, though, there is hope. The plot is surprisingly well constructed, and I applaud J.K Rowling for taking to screenwriting so well. It isn’t easy to jump mediums. The different storylines weave together by the end to a finale I could enjoy, but still felt unsatisfied with because I never got to understand these characters. Only feeling superficial empathy for them, I didn’t feel any urgency with what was supposed to be dramatically high stakes.
One thing to note about Fantastic Beasts is that it has some darker elements that resemble the last few Harry Potter movies. Heads up for parents- young children might get scared at several parts. The magic here isn’t always light, with references to various subjects, including crazy religious fanatics, Salem witch hunts, child abuse, mental illness, and a magical form of the death penalty.
At first I was really excited that the film was going to take a dark turn. The last Harry Potter movies/books were able to take a darker tone and enhance the story. An entire quintet of dark magic movies sounded awesome. Then Fantastic Beasts let me down, because simply having those elements doesn’t make the film any more mature or thoughtful. To make those dark subjects work, you have to do an arc that explores the subject and gives it the weight and levity it deserves. Fantastic Beasts just throws them in there, making the film even more crowded and shallow.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them looks great on paper. There are inventive things on display here. But the whole film is weighed down with a feeling of lifelessness that it can’t escape. One of the film’s biggest selling points was its setting in the American Wizarding World. When I saw it, though, I never got the feeling of being in America. I got the impression it was London, trying to replicate America, by just adding American accents and the Statue of Liberty and a bald eagle. The sense of greater world-building that came from the Harry Potter movies, built from a firm novel foundation, is lost here. Fantastic Beasts is obsessed with trying to be magical and whimsy and fun, but by trying too hard, it loses it completely.
In the end, magic is not enough to make Fantastic Beasts a good film. Sure, it may be fun sometimes. If you love Harry Potter and understand its mythology deeply, I can understand how wonderful the potential for Fantastic Beasts is, and I wish I had that same enthusiasm. For someone who enjoyed Harry Potter in a more casual way, the experience of watching Fantastic Beasts was kind of like going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Go ahead and dance, but it’s nowhere near as fun as being with friends, or in this case, characters you care about.