(No) Care of Magical Creatures
The Harry Potter series is one of magic and wonder. Spanning seven books and eight movies, it’s the defining series for a generation and the gold standard for YA fiction. And now along comes this film, years later, and it’s evident that magic might be lost.
Fantastic Beasts is a movie based on a fictional textbook in the Harry Potter universe, and yes, it really is as boring as it sounds. After the divisive play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, many were left to wonder if the series could sustain further entries. A screenplay by JK Rowling is a good start and director David Yates is familiar with the universe, but a series of underwhelming trailers made the expectations for this film fairly unpredictable.
The film is, by most accounts, a disappointment…but in surprising ways. I would consider myself a die-hard fan of the books, as I do a yearly read-through starting on September the 1st. I don’t particularly love the films, but they all have their strengths and weaknesses. With David Yates, I expected a washed-out color palette, excellent cinematography, strong acting, but some weak storytelling. From Rowling, I anticipated strong characters, a strong story, and a series of intricate set-ups, payoffs, and world building.
The world building and design of the 1920’s New York is one of the film’s strongest assets. Cultural differences between England’s Ministry and the US Congress make for a new series of rules for the film, a different time period allows for some unique and exciting set-pieces, and the overall universe doesn’t feel stale at all. There’s a lot to like in this new setting.
Newt Scamander is our fish-out-of-water lead for the rules of New York, with Jacob Kowalski being the fish-out-of-even-more-water for those not acquainted with magic. Newt carries with him a suitcase of titular beasts, and once unleashed in the city, his adventure begins. Simultaneously, the Magical Congress is struggling with an organization seeking to “expose” wizardry in New York, an upcoming election, and (yet another) prophecy as foreseen by Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves.
It’s here where the story begins to show its cracks. Having several plotlines isn’t a sin in and of itself…many films pride themselves on their interweaving narratives. The problem with Fantastic Beasts is how little the two actually overlap. It’s not until the third act that any of our leads appear to even notice what’s going on within the Congress. This leads us to then question…what’s really important for our characters…stopping this conspiracy or catching the beasts?
The beasts, likewise, look shockingly bad. The creature design is fine, and several of the sequences are cleverly constructed, but the CGI is cartoonish. Seeing Newt reach out and touch a creature that is very clearly not there really takes the viewer right out of the film.
I won’t go into spoilers, but we all know the film has an antagonist and it’s safe to assume that the conflict would largely be resolved by the end of the film. What I didn’t expect was for the film to end like an episode of Scooby-Doo. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I mean.
I was, however, relieved to see very few franchise tie-ins. A common complain of Cursed Child was that the story felt like fan-fiction. I was half expecting Newt to randomly bump into a man on the street who says “I am Fleamont Potter, honeymooning here in New York with my wife before decide to have a child who we think we’ll name James!” With only passing references to Hogwarts, Dumbledore, and their ilk, I’m glad to see that Yates and Rowling attempted to craft a story that was *slightly* more independent, albeit unbalanced.
An unbalanced story and wonky CGI aren’t deal breakers for me. At the end of the day, the film could still be “good” if not for its cardinal sin…uninteresting characters. Our leads, Newt and Tina, have essentially no personality. Newt goes the entire film without any sort of character arc and I can’t even attempt to describe Tina’s personality in any capacity. Harry Potter has a heart of gold, but whose hotheaded temperament often leads him to look before he leaps. Ron is a sarcastic, but loyal friend with an inferiority complex. Hermione is the brains of the operation, someone whose fastidious, if not slightly obsessive, personality (S.P.E.W.) leads her to keep the other two in check. Sprinkle in your Malfoys, Nevilles, Dumbledores, and McGonigalls, and you’ve got yourself a cast of strong and well defined characters. Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, has leads that can only be described as “nice?”
This film’s biggest failing is that its characters can’t anchor an otherwise flawed story. Though the change of setting is refreshing and unique, the story isn’t tight, the beasts don’t look real, and the characters aren’t engaging. And it’s those things, not spells or charms, that make a story truly magical.
Alex Russo likes to talk about movies. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.