As an excessively devoted Harry Potter fan, it was hard to go into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with anything but the highest expectations. Sadly, I left the theater disappointed. Seeing it for the second time last weekend during A&O’s final free screening of the quarter, I went in with a more open mind hoping to have my opinion of the film changed. After all, the trustworthy David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films) was at the helm, and J.K. Rowling herself wrote the screenplay. What could be a better recipe for success?
The problem with Harry Potter was always that things needed to be cut from the vast world created by Rowling to keep the films at a reasonable length. Fantastic Beasts has the opposite problem: instead of a built-in world, Rowling had only a manual of literal fantastic beast descriptions from which to create an expansion that would fill not one, but five planned films with none of her original characters.
For the most part, she and Yates succeed in creating a (literally) magical new world. Whereas Harry Potter was set in the fairly isolated wizarding-world, Fantastic Beasts is set in Roaring ‘20s New York City where Muggles – sorry, No-Majs,– are everywhere, forcing the wizards into extreme secrecy. Rowling easily hops across the pond, creating an “Americanized” version of everything from the magical government of MACUSA to a Prohibition-era speakeasy for wizards. There are also references to Harry Potter characters who feel like old friends, and a mention of the last name “Lestrange” to make your ears perk up.
Of course, beasts also have a (dare I say fantastic?) part to play. The best sequence of the film happens when magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by an adorably dorky Eddie Redmayne) shows local No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Folger) the zoo locked inside his case. There are enormous erumpets, huge feathery occamies, majestic thunderbirds and a particularly greedy niffler – who nearly robs a bank blind before Newt catches the little platypus-looking creature. The film shines when it focuses on these creatures, generating laughs and awe, along with creating that magical feeling that made so many of us fall in love with Rowling’s world in the first place.
The rest of the story, however, gets a bit uneven and overstuffed. There’s the lighthearted plot of Newt and the gang of Jacob, ex-MACUSA Auror Tina (played by Katherine Watson) and her sister Queenie (played by Alison Sudol) trying to track down escaped magic creatures. Then there’s the incredibly dark story of Credence (played by Ezra Miller), an abused child and repressed wizard living with the sadistic leader of an anti-magic group. It can be very jarring to switch between the two stories. There’s also the threat of Gellert Grindelwald, this era’s Voldemort, hanging over everything, along with vague foreshadowing of war between magic and non-magic folk. Oh, and a storyline about the Shaw family, a dynasty of journalists and politicians who just don’t fit into the story in any way except (spoiler) to have their memories wiped at the end of the film.
Each of these storylines is plainly meant as a set-up for the films to come. The players are introduced and a lot of information is thrown at us. The problem is, the film crams too much into its runtime and doesn’t allow the audience a moment to appreciate the wonderful world Rowling created from only a manual of magical beasts. Yes, I’m sure the Shaw family will become important in the second or third installment, but why should we want to see them instead of watching Newt & Co. run around New York, trying to keep an erumpet from wrecking the zoo? The film never gives a compelling answer.
Harry Potter is so universally beloved, Rowling and Yates could produce almost anything related to it and people would see it. We aren’t headed to the theater because we want to see a fantasy action blockbuster, we’re there because we have an attachment to the world we grew up watching and reading. We’re there for the nostalgia, the creatures, the characters, the magic. So here’s to hoping that the next of four sequels to Fantastic Beasts focuses a bit less on plot, and a bit more on exploring and reveling in the crazy universe Rowling built for us.