Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a curious film, and I don’t mean that it does odd or strange things. Instead, it’s curious about what it can do that’s interesting. It’s exceptionally noncommittal about what it wants to do, and in that way, it ends up being almost nothing. It’s a gleefully mischievous nothing that’s an awful fun to look at, but it fails at the one thing a movie should do.
And that one thing is, quite frankly, tell a story. Either through the most base terms of someone going somewhere and doing something or more subtly through a character evolving and growing as a person, it has to give an arc. Impetus and reason for why those things happen. In place of that, Fantastic Beasts chooses to spend its 133 minutes on seeing what sticks on the wall for whatever inevitable sequel follows. Events just sort of happen around our protagonists until the credits roll.
It starts out promising enough. Set in the weirdly fantastical and almost mythical Prohibition Era of the United States, a British wizard by the name of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives on a boat in the heart of New York. With him is a case that, following his year abroad, is full of all the magical creatures he’s been studying and collecting from all over the planet. It’s a pretty great setup wherein all the familiarity of the European wizarding community we’ve grown accustomed to via Hogwarts is filtered through this new setting and, pretty much, an entirely new bewitching paradigm.
For instance, Newt quickly runs into Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a dishonorably demoted auror. She runs the wand registry office within the Magical Congress of the United States of America, or MACUSA, which is an almost entirely foreign concept to the freewheeling wanding of Ollivander down in Diagon Alley. After a very adorable introduction to a shiny-hungry critter, Tina “arrests” Newt just outside a Second Salemers rally.
This already is a potent foundation, one rife with J.K. Rowling’s signature and welcome activism on Twitter and in her interviews. Second Salemers are a rather subdued approximation of the alt-right (read: Neo-Nazism) of today, trying to expose and oppress and eliminate witches from America. The allegorical relationship of witches with No-Majs, or non-magical persons, aligns pretty well with the progressive growth of the civil rights and awareness of minorities, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
Newt even comments on it as such, that Americans have a “backwards” view of witches and wizards and their stealthy existence within the unempowered majority. (That and the fact that “No-Maj” is a god damn travesty compared to “muggles,” the British equivalent, is a solid representation of what Rowling thinks of America’s creative capacity.) But this metaphorical storytelling is neither subtle nor effective, and whether one necessitates the other, at least some combination of the two is required to work. It instead just…exists and quits just as soon as it rears its social commentary head.
The president of MACUSA is even a black woman in what appears to be a congress entirely comprised of white men plus one Tina, and there’s nothing that happens there. Granted, this isn’t a movie about that unless you consider humans and their predilection to fear and anxiety barbarous and beastly, but it’s still disappointing that this opening act establishes so much and throws it all away. And that, even in the face of seeing fantastic animals everywhere the camera turns, is the true dedication of the film.
Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), one of the sadly adopted children of the woman running the Second Salemers, contains within him a great, if dire, story about what repression and acceptance can do to a person. Good and bad, it reaches deep into someone and rends them. But that’s also thrown away. Just as is the moral implications of obliviating (wiping the memories) of No-Majs when they witness magical acts. There’s a commentary there about what it means to die physically versus socially or practically or emotionally.
Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, is also terrific lesson in waiting on corruption, on pushing too far into the dark in an attempt to break through to the light. But these stories (and many more) are thrown away in favor of Newt’s main plot, which is him incidentally making a friend and petting a bunch of fluffy animals. (The diminishing of Percival is especially shameful because his reveal towards the end is absolutely and completely unearned yet predictable.) In broad strokes and some smaller, more precise ones, it is the story of the Goosebumps—which was pretty dang good—except far less interesting.
There’s an entire middle section of the movie where it could have been removed and the movie would have been far better for it and somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes shorter. It is a collection of the worst bits of execution of this movie put into a visually dazzling but mentally numbing bit of fun and games. It’s a theme park ride that is both reverential and referential to the Harry Potter world this movie is born from, two things this shouldn’t be.
And that’s because when it stands on its own, this film actually gets close to working. The characters are charming, if one-dimensional. Their interactions are fun and smile-inducing, channeling some of the signature turns of phrases and brazenly disaffected discussion of wholly extraordinary things that Rowling can be so good at. The introduction of new, uh, rules to how magic exists within people is fascinating, as are the consequences, which end up being the real bad guy. But again, it’s built up so poorly that the grand culmination is bland, predictable, and almost off-putting.
Ranking among other elements of great disappointment is actually one of the film’s sole strengths, and that is the immense amount of acting prowess here. Redmayne fully embodies the role of Newt and his awkward but persistent dedication to following the good in his heart, though he does continue his inexplicable campaign to indecipherably mumble his way through roles. But there’s one part of that aforementioned middle section that I loathe so much that is something I fully believe only he could have pulled off the way he did that ended up being entrancing and not self-aware and effacing.
And then there’s Waterson, who captures the incredibly deep and complex history her character has (but is also massively wasted, like everyone else). An auror who is demoted to a basement office job but continues to try to break through to regain her position and honor? That’s great. And you can see that on Waterson’s face with every move she makes and line she delivers.
The same goes for Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, the accompanying No-Maj in these misadventures, and his urgent need to be better than what he is and make the friends he wants. Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein, sister to Tina and practiced mind reader, also manages to infuse her character with the tremendous contradiction and social pressures of being beautiful, happy-go-lucky, and able to know exactly what everyone thinks of her as soon as they meet her.
But it’s all wasted. Or almost all of it. These actors and so many more do an incredible amount of great work with very little. As a consequence, they don’t do anything new that they haven’t done before in past roles with so little to challenge them with. Hell, Jon Voight is in this thing as a credited role and he has maybe 30 seconds of screen time. Farrell gets just a handful of lines and zero possibility of being more than an arbitrary plot twist.
The grand saving grace is just that everything that happens is so dazzling and lighthearted and puckish that it kind of slides down the gullet. It’s a junk food movie that was spun off from something that ended up being far meatier. But it has very obvious aspirations to be that level again, and that contrast makes it hard to swallow. It tries and tries, but it never quite makes it there. Fantastic Beasts they may be, but they might not be worth finding.
Final Score: 6 out of 10