-Reviving the wonderful Harry Potter series with ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is analogous to reviving a dear friend back as a zombie: it’s definitely not the person you knew, but it can sure as hell still hurt you.
From the land of titles that need to be more concise comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the newest addition to the ‘Harry Potter’ canon of films that tickled every teenager’s lust for adventure and escapism in my generation. I told myself in watching this spin-off that I wasn’t going to let the way that I feel about the previous Potter films dictate my enjoyment of this completely unrelated story. In fact, I was rooting for it to be entirely separate, because I’d rather not co-mingle storylines that do not need to be mixed. Separate is good. So, as an objective viewer going into ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ I prepared to immerse myself into the wondrous magic of the Wizarding World once again, just with different people, a different location, maybe even a different time, but the same backdrop that made J.K. Rowling’s work so intrusively marvelous.
The product here is truly horrifying. If you came to listen to a Potter fanboy talk about how they loved some of the nods to the original series or how their tastes would be wonderfully placated by just a smidge of juicy creativity to make sure that each future installment would have their money flowing from their pockets to buy new tickets, you’re in the wrong place. I don’t care if Bellatrix’s Lestrange’s fourth-generation-aunt-twice-removed gets mentioned in passing. I don’t care that “Albus Dumbledore” is spoken one time in the script. This is a shameless, pathetically directed, poorly paced, and completely insufficient revisit to the Harry Potter universe in a way that damages the brand name beyond recognition to mold the once-great magic of the universe into a claustrophobic, CGI-riddled nightmare that is closer to fan fiction than the real product. Gone are friendships, alliances, character development, villain motivations, practical effects, emotional turmoil, tonal consistency, proper pacing, inventive world/creature design, and anything memorable.
Our babbling stunad of a protagonist is Newt Scamander (a lopsided Eddie Redmayne) who gallops around taking care of his various “Fantastic Beasts” from inside his leaky briefcase, preparing a book about the creatures he collects and tries to save from the wizard-baddies who want to eliminate them to avoid detection from the Muggles. His briefcase, with that expansion charm used in the Potter-verse before, can hold habitats for several creatures, but also doesn’t lock properly and seems very easy to escape. Rather than bind it with magic or just get a new briefcase, Newt heads from England to New York City, where a few of his creatures escape. The Americans aren’t as forgiving for magically negligent behavior, and Newt gets quickly under fire from the disgraced auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), but befriends a local muggle (Dan Fogler). (Note: the Americans don’t say muggle, they say ‘non-maj’). They are opposed by auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who wants to deal with the situation in his own way.
Newt was drawn to the area because there is a creature causing a ton of destruction undetected in the New York area. The city has become somewhat politically “tense,” as the nasty non-maj orphanage owner (Samantha Morton) protests the existence of witches and wizards, saying that they’re dangerous. She abuses her adopted children, notably Ezra Miller’s Credence, into spreading her nasty gospel around. The real villain is whoever is suppressing the magic inside of us, and as the movie references, people just explode with black mist when their magic is suppressed.
There are two things that really separate a great fantasy film (or franchise) from the median output, and they both involve character-related concerns. First, if our main character is going through the hero’s quest, it should follow the rather easy track of each piece of the “quest” paradigm. That hero should have allies that fit into character types that help them along the way, people to lift them up at a low point, or people to kind them with more information than they have. It’s not that every movie has to subscribe to the same plot structure (I have repeatedly praised uniqueness on this site), but there’s a way to tell a story that remains cohesive in tone and linearity, and molding your film to most of that paradigm at least gives you some structure to fall back on. Second, the villain has to be strong, clear, and with a worthwhile cause. We must both appreciate the villain because of his evil principles, but also make those principles clear. Let’s take Lord Voldemort as an example because it’s timely. We knew his backstory, motivation, and it was given to us with extreme clarity in a two minute scene in “The Sorcerer’s Stone” just by Hagrid through a flashback. “Not all wizards are good. Some of them go bad. ‘Few years ago there was one wizard who went as bad as you can go. […] It was dark times, Harry, dark times. Voldemort started to gather some followers, brought ’em over to the dark side. Anyone who stood up to him ended up dead. Your parents fought against him, but nobody lived once he decided to kill them. Nobody, not one, ‘cept you.” There’s your villain, a plant for revenge, and a clear divide about ideologies among wizards with a few throwaway lines of dialogue.
Perhaps I’ll express it just a little bit differently. Because of this cohesion, great movies can be summed up with a pretty crisp headline to describe what the movie is about. Look at this with very relevant examples:
Arrival: “A renowned linguist gets top-secret government clearance to attempt to translate the language of a recently-landed alien race.”
Hacksaw Ridge: “A life-long pacifist’s beliefs are challenged as he heads into a brutal WWII without a weapon in hand.”
Here’s the best I can do for Fantastic Beasts:
“An awkward wizards travels from England to the United States with a briefcase full of creatures that begin to escape, all while put against the backdrop of a dark wizard creating chaos in New York City.”
The plot structure and tone shifts so much between a fun field adventure showcasing these creatures and between a dark story involving child abuse and dark wizardry that the movie is connected by only one thread, and it’s really more of a theme than a tonal consistency. Both sections of the movie are about letting your magic out, and learning to be yourself, essentially. We want to protect the creatures because they are special, and they represent a useful uniqueness to Newt, while we don’t want to suppress your magic because it will force you to eventually implode, ie, you must express yourself. That’s the connection between the story about Ezra Miller’s Credence and his shady dealings with Colin Farrell’s auror, and with Newt’s attempt to introduce his new muggle friend and his skeptical new pal in Tina to the wonder of Magical Creatures.
The two plots of the film, one revolving around a very important cameo for the true villain here, and the other about Newt and the creatures, are very different in style and tone. One is brighter and more care-free, clearly an attempt at a family film, while the other is a dark tale of abuse and uncertainty. It never really finds a way to balance them, which leads me to believe that it can’t actually balance the field manual its based on, and the attempt to eventually turn this into a big franchise with greater implications. Walk before you can run, here. I get so tired of these movies just shamelessly setting up future sequels, while suffering in the meantime. This is another one of those movies.
Going beyond that, the performances are not great. Outside of a decent Dan Fogler and an underused Colin Farrell, every other performance in this movie is pretty standard, sometimes verging on very bad. Redmayne clearly can act in a certain type of movie, look at The Danish Girl or his Oscar-winning role in The Theory of Everything, but he’s not really a worthwhile protagonist here. It seems that his fall-back personality in his films is a character who likes to go cross-eyed and whisper a lot. This is way closer to Jupiter Ascending for him than the Oscar nominated work. He’s so soft spoken and awkward that his performance is pretty much just cringe-worthy. I’ll expand that to an unfocused performance by Katherine Waterston as Tina or an annoying performance from Alison Sudol as Tina’s sister Queenie. The real loser here, though, is Ezra Miller, cast as a 15-ish year old who runs around crying and hunch-backed. I don’t really know what they or he was trying to accomplish with this “performance,” but it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, honestly. It really is one of the worst main-role performances I can remember, and that’s really the most constructive thing I can say about it. (Just a thought, but why are people worried about a magic/non-magic war among people. It’s pretty easy for magical people to have an out…you know, they can use magic?)
The CGI is often shoddy, probably because David Yates’s team has not progressed with time. The Legend of Tarzan looked pretty underwhelming too, and even though there’s a decent amount of action in this, the creature design is boring (pretty much just an earth animal with one abnormaility for each creature) and the end of the film is another Hollywood trademark: a grey rubble climax where things just explode and stuff happens but there’s too much debris flying around for the action to be focused. I’m becoming convinced that Yates really hit lightning in a bottle with the prior Potter films he directed, and doesn’t really have a chance to move his ability beyond that. J.K. Rowling really had a chance to show that she can write a solid screenplay in expanding her universe, but I think her mind might be out of ideas. It’s not even that the dialogue is so/so, but just that there’s no creativity or substance to what is happening with ‘Fantastic Beasts.’ She has become a shell of herself, writing fan-fiction that’s a poor imitation of her previous work.
Guys, this is a bad movie. You must be able to separate Potter-universe callbacks with quality. It’s the same thing when a comic-book movie is terrible but it has a lot of “easter eggs.” We must demand more from our studios in regards to their Blockbuster filmmaking. This has been such a bad year for creative wide-release stories. Go see Arrival, go support a truly great and unique story. Go see Hacksaw Ridge, and allow Mel Gibson to come back into Hollywood’s circle to make us great movies. I haven’t seen them yet, but go see Moonlight or Loving or The Edge of Seventeen. We are in a season heating up with solid releases, and going to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is supporting lazy, consumerist filmmaking that is predicated on making nostalgic viewers cease to ask questions of quality, but instead line up for the same garbage over and over and over again because it’s safe. It’s safe to enjoy Fantastic Beasts because there are wands, and wizard callbacks, and spells. It’s safe to just be happy with what’s on the screen rather than really demand something more worthwhile.
I HATED this movie. I can’t stand how lazy and incoherent it is, and I’m convinced that the reason it has good scores on Rotten Tomatoes is because of critics that are just okay with nostalgia guiding them back to the universe. Be better than the herd.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Director: David Yates (‘Harry Potter’ movies 5 though 8, The Legend of Tarzan)
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katerine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, and Colin Farrell
with: Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman