Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Fun Frolic with Some of That Harry Potter Magic
The absolute first thing that I have to say about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that I wish I could write a spoiler-free review – one that people could read before seeing this movie – because I think that before you walk into a theater to watch it, you should ask yourself, “What am I expecting from Fantastic Beasts?”
WARNING: This review contains spoilers as well as some references to the book that Fantastic Beasts is [very loosely] based on.
Here’s the problem: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is *not* a dish best served cold. (Yes, bad puns abound.) Meaning, if you have never read a Harry Potter book or watched a Harry Potter movie (and even if you’ve seen some of the story, but not all of it), I have a bad feeling that you’ll find Fantastic Beasts more strange and confusing than epic and world-building. To be honest, even if you have delved into the world of Harry Potter, but ignored all of the recent Pottermore updates leading up to this film, you likely noticed some awkward moments. Everyone says that in writing, showing is better than telling – but that’s not true 100% of the time, and it’s one of this movie’s biggest flaws – it was often attempting to show us things when it should have been telling us…and the few times that it told viewers something it should have shown, things got even worse.
That being said, at times Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was really fun. I expected the constant CGI creatures to be overwhelming, but even at their worst they were the least awkward part of this film. Additionally, the secondary characters – namely no-maj Jacob Kowalski and accomplished Legilimens Queenie Goldstein – are amazing. And while I’m not usually Colin Farrell’s biggest fan, his portrayal of Percival Graves, the latest in Rowling’s line of “Aurors-who-are-actually-villains” plots, was exceptional.
If you haven’t realized by now, it’s safe to say that I’m probably about 65% total fangirl and 35% jaded defector when it comes to J.K. Rowling and these additions to the Harry Potter universe – despite some of the good things that I saw in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, after the recent Harry Potter and the Cursed Child nonsense there’s a part of me that whispers “something’s wrong”. I feel like I’m in that scene from Jurassic Park and Ian Malcolm is telling me that Rowling and Warner Bros. “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should” – and yet I’m still not sure if I agree with him or not.
For instance, Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander was another highlight of the film. There was a lot of question about whether he would be portraying a bumbling idiot, because to be honest, the trailers implied that would be the case – but in the end, there was a sense of self-assuredness in him that bled through what I believe was a bumbling idiot act. And this is something that I think Eddie Redmayne added to the performance; something that I don’t think just any actor could accomplished.
I’m sure that my being a Hufflepuff lends a bit of glow to my feelings about Newt Scamander. Don’t get me wrong, he was definitely in over his head from the start, but at the same time he was clearly very good at adapting – perhaps something he learned from studying all those fantastic beasts? As someone who has donated, facilitated, fostered, rescued, and volunteered when it comes to animal adoptions, I absolutely teared up when Newt explained what he was doing and why.
Sadly, it’s unclear how someone who is that good with magical creatures, someone who is obviously a fast learner with strong powers, got kicked out of Hogwarts…especially when his ‘biography’ in Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander specifically says that he joined the Ministry of Magic “Upon graduation from Hogwarts”. According to the Harry Potter wiki, Newt was born in 1897; that makes him 29 in 1926, the year in which this movie takes place. It’s baffling to me how the writers could have worked the Obscurus publishing house into the story while completely changing this one detail – and why? Newt not graduating from Hogwarts really only served one purpose: giving Graves a reason to mention Dumbledore – which, coincidentally, is the latest in Rowling’s line of “Dumbledore-defends-student-accused-of-magical-beast-attack” plots.
Of course, Rowling is an accomplished worldbuilder, and we recently found out that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be a five-movie series rather than just the trilogy they originally planned. This news was quickly followed by the announcement that Johnny Depp would play the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in future installments. This is more surprising than it should be; after all, at the end of this first movie Graves turns out to be Grindelwald in disguise. One should assume that a good number of people somehow kept this secret for a very long time…especially as Fantastic Beasts officially premiered on November 10th, with Depp’s role being revealed only on November 9th.
It’s interesting to me how keeping that secret was one of the things they did best with this movie; that, and as my fellow Geekiary writer Jamie said, “A+ on the creatures, the music, and the costumes”. On that note, for the purposes of not making this review any longer than it needs to be, I’ll just dole out a few more grades.
If the creatures, music, and costumes are “A+”, then I’d give the male characters a solid “B” – decent writing, better acting, but lacking that extra oomph.
Sadly, it’s the female characters who get a “C” in this report card. It was great that the US version of the Ministry of Magic – the Magical Congress of the United States, or MACUSA – had a female president. Unfortunately, she was also portrayed as being pretty inept – not only was there existing uproar between wizards and the nomajes, but she failed to realize that Grindelwald was right under her nose for some time! And then we have Queenie Goldstein, who seems to be a better Legilimens than Dumbledore, Voldemort, or Snape (and who’s also an amazing cook!) working as what is essentially a clerk in the wand permit office. Mind you, it’s considered a demotion when her sister Porpentina is sent to the wand permit office after being removed as an Auror. And speaking of Porpentina, she sadly serves as nothing more than a plot vehicle, mostly for Newt Scamander – but also for creepy Credence.
Credence, by the way, has this “Obscurus” thing going on. He’s the plot twist that you didn’t see coming! Only you probably did. Or maybe you did, but assumed the Obscurus was Credence’s adopted sister Modesty. Regardless, the writers weren’t very coy about the fact that there was something much bigger happening outside of Newt collecting his escaped creatures. Were there parts of this twist that were decent? Sure. But this whole plot line was probably a “C-” at best – because in my opinion, they fumbled their explanation of Obscuri, and when these things were pictured, they looked and acted a lot like the dementors from the later Harry Potter films.
This could be due to the fact that David Yates directed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them. He was at the helm for Half-Blood Prince and Parts 1 & 2 of Deathly Hallows, and I feel like despite his insistent influence on those movies, there was no getting away from the fact that so many people grew up with Harry Potter; that no matter how dark he wanted his Harry Potter films to be, there was always going to be that overwhelming sense of magic. With Fantastic Beasts, however, there’s almost no source material, and also a certain sense of the fact that they’re making it up as they go along – thankfully, they’re merely adding to a world that was already created.
And that is probably the biggest reason this movie is good. It’s not great, but it’s not bad; it is (despite my many complaints) a fun little frolic in a world that I, and so many other people, already loved.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a grown-up Harry Potter tale with ideals of childlike simplicity….yet despite its problems, it’s also a generally enjoyable film, probably especially so for stalwart Rowling fans who have read all of the Harry Potter books…Newt’s included.
Author: Tara Lynne
Tara Lynne is an author, fandom and geek culture expert, and public speaker. She founded Ice & Fire Con, the first ever Game of Thrones convention in the US, and now runs its parent company Saga Event Planning.
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