There are a lot of things J.K. Rowling’s latest foray into the wizarding world gets right. The world building is immeasurable, the action is top-notch, and the tone of the story equally dark and hopeful, proving that Rowling is more than capable of delivering yet another gripping magical tale. But for all that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets right, there are some very clear missteps in the first of this five-part franchise – and I am not too much of a fan to admit that this is not a perfect film. In many ways, this movie feels like elaborate scene setting instead of a proper first installment to a new franchise.
But I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t enjoy every last moment of it.
In case you’ve been living under a rock without a decent WiFi connection, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written exclusively by Rowling, is a spin-off of the beloved Harry Potter franchise (inspired by the in-world textbook of the same name) taking place some 65 years before the events of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It follows the adventures of a young Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, a British magizoologist who has come to the United States on undisclosed business.
He lands in New York City, carrying with him a magically-expanded suitcase full of – you guessed it! – fantastic beasts, some of which manage to escape their captivity. In his scramble to catch them, he runs into Tina Goldstein, an American Auror (wizard police) played by Katherine Waterston, and Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj (the American word for Muggle) played by Dan Fogler. Through a series of chaotic events, they come together to help Newt catch his creatures and return them to the safety of his suitcase. This is the primary story that has been marketed to audiences from the moment the film was announced, and it’s what I was expecting going into the theater to see the film. But for all intents and purposes, this is the superficial top layer of the narrative, and it’s arguably the weakest part of the film.
What you don’t know is that there is an increasingly public struggle between the American wizarding community, headed by President Seraphina Picquery (played stunningly by Carmen Ejogo) and the No-Magi (the plural of No-Mag), fueled by a series of unexplained explosions that Percival Graves, the Director of Magical Security for the MCUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America, played by Colin Farrell) is investigating when Newt arrives in NYC. And beyond even that, there’s an outright war being waged in the United Kingdom against the infamous dark wizard, and close friend of Albus Dumbledore, Gellert Grindlewald.
I know. It’s a lot of information at once, and this is where Fantastic Beasts struggles the most. It was very clearly marketed as a roaring wizarding adventure through New York City – and, in many ways, it is. But it’s also beholden to its own world-building. You can literally feel Rowling setting the stage for the next four films, planting all the right seeds that will come to fruition when the time is right – though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! As a Harry Potter fan, I gobbled it all up and wanted second and third servings. I’m officially invested in this story, because the greater potential it has is astonishing to think about. But, as a standalone film, Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite deliver the goods.
The first act is a lot of plodding around vintage NYC while showing off beasts that are truly fantastic. Like, seriously, the sheer amount of creative energy that went into film is astonishing. But inventive creative design can only carry a movie so far. Thankfully, Fantastic Beasts picks up the pace fairly quickly, digs into the deeper storyline, and shapes up to be one of the more engaging (and progressive) wizarding films. It deals with the themes of repression and persecution, as well as those of love and acceptance. Love has always been a major theme of the Harry Potter films, and that is not lost in Rowling’s vision for Fantastic Beasts.
Helping Rowling to fulfill her vision is director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter films: The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 & 2. When Yates first took over the franchise, I was not a fan of his work. I was a snobby purist who didn’t like that he left things from the books out of the films. But his interpretation of Rowling’s creation has grown on me over the years – especially the last two films, of which you can find my reviews here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).
In fact, I’d argue that Yates’ films are the strongest of the lot, and this strength is delivered in full force in Fantastic Beasts. Because when this movie works, it works well. From the cinematography to the visual effects, this movie looks and feels like it actually happened, and the actors are directed near flawlessly. Yates learned how to capture the magic and menace of Harry Potter over the last decade, and I am thrilled that he’s brought it back to the table with Fantastic Beasts. He’s also set to direct the next four films, which means the Fantastic Beasts franchise is poised to be far more consistent than the Harry Potter films. This could be a great thing (see the last four Harry Potter films), but we could also miss out on odd-ball gems like Alfonso Cuarón’s The Prizoner of Azkaban. Only time will tell how this new series will pan out.
Of course, you can’t talk about Harry Potter without mentioning the musical scores fueling the films. The franchise has delivered some of the most memorable themes and iconic pieces of music in movie history, thanks to composers like John Williams and Alexandre Desplat. These were large shoes to fill walking into the spin-off series, but James Newton Howard (who scored the Hunger Games series) does an excellent job picking up the baton last held by Desplat. Howard expertly captures the darkness and hope present in Fantastic Beasts with his score, creating new themes that are sure to extend into future films (he’s scoring Fantastic Beasts 2), while paying homage to Williams’ eternally memorable “Hedwig’s Theme.” It’s a soundtrack I’m sure to grow tired of by leaving it on repeat for too long, but such is life.
As I said in the beginning of this review, Fantastic Beasts is a bit of a mixed bag, and the ratio of good / bad depends entirely on your expectations for this film and your tolerance for world building. But I think most Harry Potter fans will find a lot to love in Fantastic Beasts and leave the theater excited to see the next one. I know I certainly did.