Summary: Awkward lil’ magical beast lover Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes to America! On his first day there, he runs afoul of disgraced Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), accidentally lets his case of magical creatures get taken by a no-maj (that’s American for muggle) named Jacob (Dan Fogler), lets the no-maj release said beasts, and gets tangled smack dab in the middle of a bad time in the wizarding community of America as Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) and the Second Salem Society threatens to expose them.
A years after the fact prequel series constructed largely out of whole cloth and some strands of actual textual material by Warner Brothers to take advantage of a seemingly dead franchise that made a whole hell of a lot of money in its time?
Once you all finish letting out the deep sigh from remembering The Hobbit, I’m actually talking the latest one of those. Didn’t much work out for Lord of the Rings, but how does Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them help bring back the nostalgia bucks from the now disposable income flushed Harry Potter fans?
No discussion about this film can be isolated from what purpose it ultimately serves. For all its artistic and thematic concerns, its ultimate commercial purpose is to start a franchise. So, we ask what you need to ask to start a franchise. Does this film get us excited for the future of it? Do we see a world to build off of? And then we can start talking about the quality. Is it good?
Unfortunately for Fantastic Beasts, the first two questions can be answered maybe almost entirely because the last is answered no.
Now, how does that work, you’re asking yourself?
Fantastic Beasts is afflicted with something that is absolutely fatal to this as a stand-alone picture. Its B-plot is infinitely more compelling than its A-plot.
Answer me objectively. Which is the better plot for a Wizarding World Movie:
- A disgraced Auror attempts to push her way back onto the force by dealing with a mysterious series of murders in 1920s New York as she deals with bigotry, red tape, and an encroaching political extremism making its way over from Europe.
- A floppy haired British gent reenacts Jumanji with wizards in 1920s New York.
If you’re a sane person, you didn’t choose the ACTUAL A-PLOT OF THIS FILM.
For all its interesting world-building and shading, something that director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling have remained good at from the olden days of the main franchise, there’s just no core here.
Part of that is on Newt Scamander himself. Eddie Redmayne is not necessarily a bad actor, but the guy seems completely incapable making himself elevate any movie or character that revolves around him. Redmayne is alright here, but Scamander is such a nothing character. It does a whole hell of a lot of franchise-building in order to set up mysteries and revelations about him later, but it gives us nothing about him in the here and now.
Scamander is a cipher at best, a few ticks and a whole hell of a lot of awkward, but just nothing there as a real character. Child actor Radcliffe had given a great deal more shading to Harry Potter in the first film than Oscar-winning Redmayne does here, and that’s a problem.
But even more of the problem rests that the franchise can’t decide why it centers on him. His plot isn’t terribly interesting, not revealing any new history to the world or unveiling any of the old mysteries. We’re never given a reason to really hope that he finds his lost beasts besides stopping the destruction. A few details here and there aren’t enough to make us want to go along with the adventures of Newt Scamander,
Which then leads to the fact that this is a franchise that just wasted its first movie pointing in a whole lot of different directions. It’s unfocused and much duller than something with this much interesting lurking under the surface is.
So, the hope here is that we’ll end up seeing a lot more of the side story, the encroaching war of Grindlewald and the prejudice all around the world, a darker and more relevant story. The hints we keep getting of that? The story of the Second Salem and Credence (Ezra Miller)? The conflict within the Magical Congress of the US? That stuff is really good and really interesting. Hopefully the future films can build on that.
And hopefully with a more interesting world. Harry Potter’s strength as a film franchise was always a very specific sense of place, a surprisingly tangible and real world that had detail. Fantastic Beasts has none of that, it’s a far more generic place and one without the ability to grasp. It’s not an alternate world, it’s the same Depression-era New York with a few slightly different costumes and a whole lot of CG filling out.
Fantastic Beasts feels really phony in a lot of ways. It’s the same problem that plagued The Hobbit. The solutions to creating the world the first time, the ones that made the world feel real were tossed on to the backburner for the easier CGI solutions. Fantastic Beasts just has nothing to it.
Fundamentally, Fantastic Beasts is a poorly built theater set. You see everything, you see what it’s supposed to be, you get the representations. But you know the second you go to push it, it will fall over and ultimately reveal that there’s nothing there. No character, no core, no building materials. Just a whole bunch of artifice strung together.
It often gets near fine. But the purpose behind it means that it could have never been more than just fine. For a series capable of magic and wonder, why not ask for more?