Oh, how wonderful it is to return to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.
But wait! “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is, from a storytelling and tonal standpoint, almost nothing like any of the Harry Potter books or movies that created the world in which it lives.
This return to one of the millennial generation’s most beloved universes has grown up with its audience, providing a more mature and quiet version of magical tales past. So is it for the best?
Well, sometimes. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is smaller in scale than the Harry Potter films yet less intimate; better constructed yet less complete.
“Fantastic Beasts’” setting is the first thing that separates it from the stories of the Harry Potter franchise. This film takes place during 1926 and in (much to the chagrin of my England-loving self) New York City.
The sparkling, thriving recreation of 1920s New York may actually be the most magical thing about the film — absolutely none of it was actually shot in New York.
Movie witchcraft aside, it’s immediately clear that this will be quite a different story. There’s not even a single shot of a wizarding school.
Unfortunately the only thing that carries over intact from the original Harry Potter franchise is David Yates’ insipid direction.
I’ve always described his filmmaking methods as “nothing terrible but nothing special”, but the more I’m subjected to it, the more I develop distaste for it.
Yates directed the last four Harry Potter films and over time his lack of style has grown wearisome: every camera angle shows what it needs to as uninterestingly as possible, actors seem like they’ve received no further feedback than “read your lines aloud”, his drama is bereft of tension.
Other than its impressively creative beast designs, there is nothing unique about Fantastic Beasts visually or directorially.
Thankfully J. K. Rowling’s screenplay brings on welcome change. This is the first time that Rowling herself has written a film, and in that way “Fantastic Beasts” captures the spirit of her books better than any movie based on them.
Rowling is a masterful storyteller and it shows here with soothing smoothness: her prowess at world building and setting up plot threads is commendable.
“Fantastic Beasts” is paced slowly but responsibly as Rowling constructs a land rife with possibility. As skillfully as she pulls this off, I could never escape the sense that it was a fragmented part of a story — it is an opening chapter that fully intends to steal your money over four more movies, and thus it never coalesces into a complete experience. The small-scale beginning is appreciated in a year full of bombast though.
But make no mistake: small-scale does not necessarily mean personal. The greatest flaw of “Fantastic Beasts” is its curious lack of character development.
With the exception of the comic relief, no character in this movie has a legitimate character arc. Most of them barely change or grow: personalities are static and internal conflict is harder to find than Newt Scamander’s beasts.
If audiences are used to the complex changes of and chemistry between Harry, Ron and Hermione, they may find the cookie-cutter simplicity of Newt and friends rather forgettable.
There is an exception with Jacob, a ‘No-Maj’ (the one term more ridiculous than ‘Muggle’) who is unwittingly dragged into Newt’s quest.
Not only is Dan Fogler’s physical performance a hilarious delight, Jacob’s foray into both the magical realm and newfound self-confidence gifts Fantastic Beasts with deeply emotional moments. Jacob’s arc and Fogler’s acting are easily the best parts of the movie.
Eddie Redmayne continues his modus operandi of tilting his head to the side and whispering his lines; Katherine Waterson is promising; the casting of the villain Grindelwald is unfortunate.
All in all Fantastic Beasts is more fine than fantastic, and I can only hope that Rowling gives her characters more attention going forward with the franchise.
★★★ (3 out of 5)