I probably felt more excitement for this in a way that no other franchise film has invoked in me for awhile. With Marvel sticking with “safe and non-threatening” on each and every entry, DC steadfastly refusing to make one good movie before setting up its universe, and even the Star Wars rumors of reshoots to make their gritty war-film-spinoff more of a fun film I looked to Harry Potter, which is playing with a world that is ripe for expansion, for proof that all of this was not just cash-grab nonsense.
I got a fun film, but I did not get what I needed.
David Yates’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them actually has…well, very little to do with either the aforementioned beasts or where they like to hang out. The film manages to not come off as a cash grab but instead a display of some of the fatal flaws involved in many world-expansion movies – it is too concerned with trying to establish a universe to slow down and be a good film. Between locating three beasts (which are not in their natural environment, merely escapees from our lead character’s bag) and an entire second plot the film really needed some guidance and someone to slow it down and focus the creative team on making one good story. Between this and my recent slog through Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, both of which are reportedly stories from the mind of J.K. Rowling, I’m starting to think maybe this franchise would be better if given over to other creative minds completely.
None of this is to say the film is without charming points, things I really did enjoy as a fan of this world and its magic. As we descend with Newt Scamander into his briefcase there are some wonderfully whimsical things, visuals that gave me what I had hoped for in this film. We see a variety of different creatures, ranging from adorable to frightening, and their environments are wonderfully recreated by the character’s magic (which, apparently, fulfills the “where to find them” quota). An entire sequence is devoted to swirling through this little world and showing the audience all of these wonders. While parts of it are too much of a CGI-fest (the film clearly wanted to be in 3D) it still manages to be fun and it brought a smile to my face. This moment and some of the more personal character moments are the highlights of the plot, the performances doing their best to bring new characters into this beloved world.
And let’s talk about those performances. Eddie Redmayne, who seemed a delightful addition to the world of Harry Potter, is unfortunately about as expected. Newt Scamander is predictably awkward, strange, sort of charming, and one might wonder if he has a light touch of personality disorder. The film revolves around his interactions between several characters rather than his location of magical creatures and this is one of its strengths. Early on he is paired with Dan Fogler’s (Europa Report, Fanboys) Jake Kowalski and the two are easily the most fun pairing in the film. Fogler is having a blast in this and seems to be a perfect audience-connect character, delighting in his chance to play in the world of Rowling’s creation without actually possessing any magic of his own. Redmayne’s Scamander can be inconsistent with himself on and off through the story but his sidekick keeps the performance focused interesting, giving Redmayne reason to remain weird and off-putting while still managing to be a draw for long segments of the film.
Katherine Waterston (Steve Jobs, Inherent Vice) plays our female lead, Popertina Goldstein. The character is socially awkward, like Scamander, but in her own way. She lacks confidence early on for some reason despite doing some really bold things, including barging in on secret meetings that the president of her magical congress is having with higher ranking officials and making an arrest after her status as law enforcement has been revoked. I have issues with this character, she seems at times to lack the feeling that she is there for anything but a counter to Scamander, but she manages to be fun and feel like she belongs somehow and Waterston puts so much effort into making her extremely enjoyable regardless of the things she is required to do for plot purposes. I did love that the filmmakers decided to hint at a romance between Scamander and Goldstein without letting it be realized yet. If they’re going to treat this franchise like an expensive television series then they need to let things like that have a slow-burn.
Other main performances of note are Alison Sudol’s “Queenie”, sister to Popertina and weird character who seems to just be there to have yet another weird character, Colin Farrell’s “Mr. Graves” has no interest in being anything but Colin Farrell, which is unfortunate given his character arc. And remember, folks, that John Voight is in this for seemingly no reason other than to include John Voight. None of these really stand out and honestly if they were going to shell out money for Colin Farrell they might have given him more to do because with what he was doing they could have cast…well, anybody. The recognition the man draws simply isn’t necessary and felt like a pointless reason to use an established, bigger name.
Ezra Miller, on the other hand, is fantastic as “Credence Barebone”. Brooding, brokenness, and suffering are all portrayed with very little dialogue and instead the man relies on body language for large chunks of the story. None of it is subtle, but it can’t have been comfortable for him and he manages to make it engaging. The things he goes through make the character sympathetic and powerful if only in a representative way rather than one full of real meaning. He is symbolic, and this leads to some of the moments surrounding the attitude of the American Wizarding Community that are notably darker than I had already expected.
Yates is yet again a bother to the film’s sensibilities. He does nothing interesting with the camera, he does nothing interesting with the composition, and is seemingly here because he – bafflingly – was kept on so long with the original film series and has become a crucial member of the franchise’s history. If you’re looking for something artistic or exciting in the filmmaking in the Harry Potter world you’ll be disappointed but, then, it wouldn’t exactly be your first time, would it? But here even the music is forgettable, with the opening notes that play the pieces of John Williams score being the only thing that stand out and even that is so drenched in nostalgia that it seems too easy.
The film suffers from what I call “The Phantom Menace Syndrome” – it has no idea if it wants to be a children’s movie or a dark, violent film aimed at adults so it tries to appeal to both. Like Lucas’s film and Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy, this simply has no idea what it wants to be or who it wants to be for and that is one of its problems. The bits and pieces rattle around, the slapstick goofiness and the grittier elements all jumbled into one film and while there is room for both they needed to give us far less of one or the other than we got.
I honestly would only recommend this film if you are a diehard fan. Newcomers to the franchise will not get a ton out of it, the world and plot are too convoluted and ask you to make huge logic leaps to accept some of the story. Those who are especially versed in Potter lore, film or books or both, are going to cringe a lot at things in the film that are nonsensical or inconsistent with the world as it has been established.
All of this said I have to admit there are charming moments in here, drenched in magic and beautiful visuals from the excessive reliance on the CGI department as well as Dan Fogler’s comic relief. These bits manage to be fun despite the film’s more bogged down problems. Those who are very much wanting Harry Potter will be let down as this is a new animal, but those who are wanting that spirit may still find what they are looking for. The film will be a solid matinee for fans and newcomers alike, but the latter may be baffled by moments.
- SPOILERS –
A word on Johnny Depp’s appearance.
Cards on the table I’m not much of a fan these days. Black Mass was the only interesting role the man has had in a decade, and he seems to continue that streak in this film with yet another appearance covered in white face paint and a wild hair-style that reeks of his lesser Tim Burton-film appearances.
That said…he was in the film for about 60 seconds. There was so little to judge him by. Does the film make a mess of the timeline? Yes. Does it cast into question everything not only Rowling told us but that Yates has previously shown as well? Yes. But it isn’t painful, and merely the presence of Johnny Depp doesn’t ruin the immersion (let’s be honest, if Colin Farrell doesn’t ruin your immersion experience then Johnny Depp shouldn’t). I’m not a fan of this casting but it also hasn’t pissed me off yet, so let’s see where it goes before we lose our collective minds completely. The film is a lackluster, middle-of-the-road release, but if the stories improve from here Depp could be a key part of that so I’m all for giving him a chance.