Harry Potter is just about the biggest thing in the history of things. To say that I am a fan of Harry Potter is to make an essentially empty statement. Everyone is a fan of Harry Potter. (Except the weirdos who think we’re all brewing potions in our basements). They’ve built two bloody theme parks out of Potter so we can all visit our favorite fantasy world whenever we want and they even published a stage play just to give us addicts another fix. So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced I, like the rest of the fans, naturally had to suppress a mini nerdgasm. The prospect of getting any more Potter was wonderfully tantalizing, but the source material gave me pause. Fantastic Beasts is a paper thin book with no real story to it. Can this be a worthy spin-off with the guts to stand on its own, or will it be just another unwanted prequel trying to live up to the legacy of its predecessor? The answer to both is, “yes.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way up front: is Fantastic Beasts a good movie? Yes. Am I going to spend most of this article nitpicking the hell out of it? Yes. We on the same page now? Good. Let’s talk crapiness. Spoiler warning for the three people in the world who haven’t seen this ruddy movie yet.
The central issue with this film has to do with its structure. This is ostensibly the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the renowned magizoologist who wrote the titular textbook on which the film is based, and his arrival in 1920s New York. He sneaks a case full of magical creatures through customs, the animals escape, shenanigans ensue, and off we go on a grand magical adventure about fantastic beasts and, you know…finding them. That sounds like a solid premise that would make for a pretty good movie, but in reality this is only half the story.
The other half is a murky tale involving a shady government official, an anti-magic muggle organization, abused orphans, a mysterious, destructive, invisible force, and the looming menace of Gellert Grindelwald, Dumbledore’s arch nemesis and ex gay lover. The film constantly interrupts our search for escaped magical creatures to give use scene after scene involving what initially appear to be tangential elements to the main story. Over time, it becomes clear that we actually have two independent narratives competing for screen time here: one is about Newt Scamander and his hunt for escaped magical creatures; the other is about a disguised Gellert Grindelwald trying to start a war.
The issue isn’t that we have two narrative threads, its that the characters within those threads have no relationship to each other. While their paths do occasionally cross, their goals and motives remain independent. The Grindelwald narrative feels like a distraction until we hit the third act finale and it eclipses Newt’s story, which was previously the film’s main focus.
In terms of the film’s position within the franchise and its overall impact on the wizarding world, Newt’s story of chasing magical creatures is all but pointless. What matters is the political ramifications of Grindelwald’s attempt to expose the wizarding world and start open war with muggles. Grindelwald’s goal, motivation, and even identity is kept deliberately obscure throughout the film, meaning that a great deal of our screen time is spent building towards something nebulous and mostly irrelevant to our hero.
The result is a schizophrenic film that is one part independent spin-off and one part Harry Potter prequel. Newt’s story is a fun, self contained tale that easily could have sustained the film by itself, but Grindelwald’s presence within the story forces Newt to play second fiddle. The fact is that the 2nd most powerful dark wizard of all time is just a little bit more important than the guy who one day writes a Hogwarts textbook. By establishing Grindelwald as the main villain of this new franchise, we are inevitably left with only one ending for our story: Grindelwald’s 1945 defeat at the hands of Dumbledore in the greatest wizard’s duel of all time, which will presumably take place while Newt watches from the sidelines eating some Every Flavor Beans and petting his Niffler. Fantastic Beasts is already poised to fall into the trap of The Hobbit films: namely, having a plot that overshadows and eventually forgets about its own hero. Speaking of which…
Newt feels like a really interesting character, but we learn so little about him. Gentle, soft spoken and socially awkward, Newt is an everyman with a passion for magical creatures. He’s a conservationist and animal rights advocate with an adorably mischievous Niffler no doubt destined to become a stocking stuffer this holiday season. In short, he’s instantly likable. Too bad this is all we ever learn about him. Fantastic Beasts spends its time piling plot points and set pieces on top of each other in rapid fire, leaving little room for character beats.
Newt only gets one true moment in the spotlight and it is arguably the best scene in the film: the suitcase scene. When Newt takes Jacob on a tour through his magical habitat generator, we get to see a completely different side of him. He displays a comfort and happiness interacting with animals that we do not see in his dealings with humans. With people he is awkward, self conscious, often not making eye contact with others. But with animals he positively glows. His love and passion for them is obvious. In fact, the contrast is so stark that I came to believe that Newt may be mildly autistic, perhaps with a form of Asperger’s Syndrome or something of that like. He has trouble relating to people, but not to animals. The only element of the film hinting at this possibility is Redmayne’s performance, and I applaud him for it. It would certainly explain how he got the part. After all, he has a bit of a history playing characters with unique conditions. Frankly, the prospect of a neurodivergent hero in a blockbuster franchise like this is pretty wonderful, so its a real shame that this one scene is the only time we truly get a glimpse of who Newt is as a person.
The reason for this is the aforementioned structural issues that plague the movie. By necessity, this film is almost entirely plot driven. There is quite a bit of material stuffed into just over two hours, so most of our scenes deal with progressing our two narratives, leaving our characters to get lost in the shuffle.
Most of the supporting cast are little more than an archetypes with a single character trait. Jacob (Dan Fogler) is the bumbling sidekick who wants to open a bakery. Tina (Katherine Waterston) is the obligatory female lead character and down on her luck ex Auror who can’t seem to do anything right. Her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is an accomplished Legilimens and token romantic subplot with a touch of sex appeal. Graves (Colin Farrell) is a bad guy who is up to something. Grindelwald is Johnny Depp. Also John Voight is in this movie for some reason. Our characters have little backstory or compelling motivation, meaning that they aren’t invested in the plot with which they are engaged. Nearly everyone in this movie gets involved in the plot by accident, including our hero.
The entire third act finale is the most egregious example of the movie’s tendency to eschew character development and motivation in favor of indulging blockbuster demands for plot twists and wanton destruction. Newt actually came to America to release a Thunderbird in Arizona. Did you forget that little detail? Don’t worry. The movie did too. The entire escapade involving the escaped magical creatures is little more than a giant, albeit enjoyable distraction which forces Newt to cross paths, quite by accident, with Grindelwald and the Obscurus he has set loose upon New York. Newt has no prior relationship with Grindelwald, no knowledge of his plan, and his expertise with magical creatures isn’t remotely relevant. Instead, we have a few scenes earlier in the film which establish that Newt has dealt with an Obscurus before, implying that he’ll be able to deal with this one now. Only he doesn’t. The child is killed before he can act. Afterwards Newt reveals Grindelwald’s identity on a whim, despite having no reason to suspect him of being in disguise. When the film ends we are left with the realization that we’ve spent half our screen time on an irrelevant plot about magical beasts, following a hero who has no character arc, only to arrive at a finale where everything is wrapped up nicely with no consequences.
Perhaps what is most irritating of all is that none of these issue make Fantastic Beasts a bad movie. It’s a very good movie. But it could have been a great movie and it’s not. It wavers between being a spin-off and a prequel. It introduces a solid new hero, but does very little with him. It boasts a great supporting cast of characters, but over stuffs its plot so badly that there’s no time for any of them to breathe. In the end, much like Harry’s Astronomy O.W.L., Fantastic Beasts is merely “Acceptable.”