After a very long wait, it’s finally here: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the spinoff based upon one of Harry Potter’s textbooks, set in the same world decades before Harry was born, and with the screenplay written by JK Rowling herself. The film is also directed by David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter adaptations. Having had several months to learn about the film and grasp how an interesting story and multi-film series might be extracted from a fictional school textbook, I was leaning more towards positivity: the reviews were generally good, though my friend Rachel Wagner hadn’t been that impressed. (We’ll be doing a podcast on the film soon.)
On Friday evening, I sat down in a crowded theatre to finally see Fantastic Beasts for myself – and I was left feeling disappointed. I desperately wanted to love this film, but all I could do was half-heartedly like it. The performance was also spoiled somewhat when the film was suddenly paused halfway through; I thought there was a problem with the projection, but then everyone looked round and there was a chunk missing from the ceiling! Nobody was hurt, but we had to wait fifteen minutes for the film to start again, while the ceiling was checked and those in the vicinity were re-seated.
In 1926, former Hogwarts student and magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York, bringing with him a magical suitcase containing his collection of fantastical creatures. Soon after his arrival, Newt has an encounter with a No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler); following some hijinks in a bank, Jacob ends up releasing a number of creatures from Newt’s suitcase into the city. Newt, who is already in trouble with the American magical congress MACUSA for failing to wipe Jacob’s memory, must now team up with the No-Maj to track his pets down. Meanwhile, tensions in MACUSA are already high, with the dark shadow of Gellert Grindelwald possibly spreading across the Atlantic, while an unknown force causes havoc in New York and risks the exposure of the wizarding community.
Similar to how I felt reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I experienced a great deal of nostalgic pleasure as the film commenced with the opening titles and the familiar notes of the Harry Potter theme. And the film does have some truly joyful moments where it sinks comfortably into this universe and brings back the old magic. When Newt and Jacob have dinner with witch sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol), napkins fly into place like birds and an apple strudel makes itself from scratch: the scene feels like it should be accompanied by ‘Bibbity Bobbity Boo’. Soon afterwards, Newt takes Jacob into his TARDIS-style suitcase which contains habitats for all of his creatures: this is another wonderful sequence, not just for the range of creatures on offer – which those who have read the original Fantastic Beasts book (released by Rowling for Comic Relief in 2001) may be able to recognise even if Newt doesn’t mention their names – but for Newt’s enthusiasm and affection for them all. It’s when he’s sharing the screen with CGI beasts that Eddie Redmayne is at his best here.
Besides that, the film both feels like it belongs in the same universe as Harry Potter and yet is still fresh and different with its alternate setting; there’s enough explanation of how the American wizarding world works for anyone who hasn’t read the background material on Pottermore. The attempts at humour – often involving animal slapstick, such as a treasure-snatching Niffler and an Erumpent that’s desperate to mate – are certainly not painful, but never laugh-out-loud funny either. It’s quite grim for much of the time, definitely in keeping with the Potter films that Yates directed in terms of atmosphere and gritty cinematography. There’s a particularly chilling scene demonstrating how the death penalty works in wizarding America.
So what doesn’t work in this film? Unfortunately, quite a lot. Though it pains me to say it, JK Rowling’s first screenplay is heavily flawed: the dialogue is generally uninspired compared to her books, and both the story and many individual scenes move awkwardly, meandering before suddenly jerking forward again. There are several different plotlines and groups of characters to follow, and while they don’t necessarily become convoluted, some just don’t get enough time devoted to them. For example, there are the Second-Salemers, a group of No-Maj fundamentalists who want to wipe out wizards: certain characters from this group play an important role in the climax, but I didn’t feel I knew them well enough to get invested. Even worse is the No-Maj character Langdon Shaw; a scene early on details his relationship with his powerful father and brother, and suggests he will have a significant role, but in fact he barely appears at all after this and contributes practically nothing. Most of the characters are quite flat and under-developed; while some – like the bewildered but enthusiastic Jacob, and the bubbly Queenie Goldstein – are still likeable, others, like Tina, are more irritating.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them just doesn’t have the same magic as the Harry Potter series – in fact, unlike those books and films (with the possible exception of Deathly Hallows Part 1), it manages to be downright bland a lot of the time. ‘Not that bad, but not that good’ is the best way to describe this one, which really saddens me. Rating: 3/5.