Main Plot: 3
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity with franchise
Part One: WHERE ARE THE FUCKING DRAGONS!?
As with the other major narrative in the recent Harry Potter revival (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Fantastic Beasts was off to a rough start trying to win me over right out the gate. The first trailer didn’t even show a hint of the creatures, which made me skeptical any of its beasts would be in the lease bit fantastic. Refraining from showing major spectacles in full is a good technique for building tension in a film trailer, but showing nothing at all implies to me one of the following: A) You don’t have any of the expensive effects finished yet; B) You have some of the CGI done but it looks like crap; or C) You want to imply your film has more CGI creatures in it than it actually does. I can’t speak for the first option, but after watching the film, I can say that the other two interpretations are spot-on.
Even after the first few trailers had come out, I noticed, alarmingly, that there were no dragons. Gasp! No dragons? How could that be? I’ll be honest, the lack of dragons was the main reason I wasn’t excited for its release, but even for me that seems like an awfully petty reason not to see an otherwise good film. The reviews were good, I had friends who were excited to see it, I had been involved (albeit loosely) in the Harry Potter craze in the oughts, and by the time the latter few trailers were released, the film was showing off some of its other creatures. So why did I wait so long to actually see the film?
The simple answer is because I wasn’t interested. Nothing stuck out at me as worth paying ten dollars and two hours to see. But, now that it’s come out on DVD and showed up on my streaming services, I figured I should give it a chance because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. If anything is has taught me one thing: that I should give more credit to my initial instincts.
When I was reading the Harry Potter series for the first time as a kid, I found two extra, much smaller books alongside the main series, and one of these was of course Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a short lore book that references one of the characters’ textbooks. As the main draw of the series for me was the mythical creatures, I naturally ended up checking this book out far more times than was necessary to actually read it. It isn’t long and to say it lacks a plot or substance is an understatement; it is essentially just a list of paragraph-length descriptions of a bunch of magical creatures, including those that made it into the books and a few that didn’t. I imagine it started as a reference for Rowling when writing the series so she could keep her potions ingredients and creature references consistent. The only semblance of narrative is in certain individual descriptions and in the scribbling the book includes to give the impression this is Harry’s specific copy of the textbook that has been borrowed and “edited” by Ron. While both forms of narrative are enough for a small aside to the main series, I can see why the filmmakers went with an original script that only loosely borrows from the original piece; as is, it would have been more of a DVD extra than a major motion picture.
I wanted to explain my familiarity with the original to provide context. I won’t harp much on the differences between the original and the film because they are ultimately two very separate things and I want to keep in line with my dismissal of “the book was better” as a valid argument in reviewing an adaptation. The two should be judged as their own entities. It is worth acknowledging, though, the appeal in the book that serves as the basis for the Fantastic Beasts film, which is of course the descriptions of the creatures. There are some really creative ideas in here that I still remember even though I haven’t seen the book in years; I remember the teleporting dodo (which gets a brief cameo in this film), the five-legged man-eating Scottish monsters, and the cloak-like creature that eats people in their beds then vanishes without a trace. The dragons get their own major section dedicated to the ten different breeds, and each one incorporates a different appearance or ability. The film tries to some extent to capture the wonder of these folkloric creatures in a manner similar to the book, but it falls far short of that goal, only showing the tendencies of a few creatures in detail, most of which barely differ from real-world counterparts. When the creatures are on-screen, they are merely adequate, and much of the time the film forgoes its main draw to deliver on a completely unrelated series of disconnected subplots.
Fantastic Beasts has several creatures that don’t appear in other films, even other Harry Potter films, and as underwhelming as I found the visuals to be, some of the creatures, like the feathered serpent and thunder bird, are at least visually interesting. A brief scene in which we see the contents of the suitcase offers a plethora of beasts befitting my expectations for the film, and because their designs are creative and the environments are computer-generated as well, they’re fairly pleasant to look at. However, this scene is little more than a montage, and it points out how lackluster the other creatures inhabiting the film are.
For a film that sells its tickets on the idea of showing off a litany of magical creatures, the number and variety of those actually involved in the plot is severely lacking. Only about eight creatures actually appear outside of the suitcase (twice as many as in the average Harry Potter film, none of which is even focused on magical creatures), and only three of these (the niffler, the obscurus, and the thunder bird) are key to the plot. All of the other creatures are asides, and most of the scenes featuring them could be cut, re-arranged, or put on the extras of a dvd and the story (insofar as one exists) would continue unimpeded. The only creature crucial to the plot is the obscurus, which as we learn isn’t even really a creature but something human wizards become if they suppress their magic. The niffler is at best a plot contrivance to get the two main leads to interact, and the thunderbird is the nth use of a large flying creature as a deus ex machina in film. Beyond their lack of purpose in the story, only the occamy, billywig, and arguably the thunderbird are much different from real-world animals. The Harry Potter series has never exactly been the pinnacle of fantasy creativity when it comes to creature ideas, using giant animals and the simplest possible iterations of fantasy creatures for most of its monsters, but Fantastic Beasts takes a step further along the path of lazy design and doesn’t even bother to make many of the creatures a different size than the real-world counterparts they resemble. Among the creatures is a platypus that’s a slightly different color than real platypodes, a monkey that looks more or less like a monkey (when the film isn’t turning it invisible to save money on effects), and a rhinoceros that might as well have been played by the real thing. At one point they even introduce CGI versions of zoo animals because the film can’t be bothered to make use of those few creative creature designs. Non-animal creatures include a Baby Groot rip-off that serves as much use to the plot as the fifth Doctor’s celery, and a black puff of smoke whose name (in that excessively on-the-nose way of the series) literally translates to “dark.” None of these creatures on their own is worth seeing the film for, and there aren’t enough together to be much of a draw to more skeptical members of the audience either. The main appeal of the film, evidenced by its name and advertisement, is the creatures. If it frequently fails to highlight their appeal, then what other reason is there to see the film?
Part Two: The Potterverse, New and Old
A surprising amount of new lore has been added to the world of Harry Potter since the release of the seventh book, which is interesting because neither the fan-retconned play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, nor this film seem particularly interested in exploring it. Instead, Fantastic Beasts focuses on using existing elements of the magical world to explore new characters and locations. The film takes some daring steps in not only giving the spotlight to completely new characters with few cameos from old cast or characters at all (which is more than can be said for the play), but also setting its story in a completely different place and time. Despite it being set entirely in 1920s New York, it feels a lot more modern than the original series because the environment is no longer confined to an archaic castle. Very little in the Harry Potter series outside of the Dursleys’ house couldn’t have come from the 1800s or earlier.
Unfortunately, despite the new location, the film rarely takes advantage of its iconic setting, only using obligatory nods to a few famous landmarks, aside from Central Park. I don’t have any need for the film to spend time praising the appeal of tourist New York, since so many other films do that already, but it does beg the question, why does the film have to be set in New York, or even the United States at all?
For an American audience, the film has that uncanny feel of a film that was probably not even filmed in the Western Hemisphere and was created by a mostly British film crew made up of people who go to the United States for reasons comparable to why most people visit zoos. The environments, while passably done, have an artificial feel to them, right down to the silly accents that all but convinced me everyone in this film was a Brit trying to do their best old-timey New Yorker impression. Part of the odd feel is related to it being a period piece, sure, but more of it I think has to do with the world-building, which dutifully captures the aesthetic of the region without idealizing it, but other parts feel like they’re put in through the lens of someone who has not only never lived in New York, but also hasn’t spent much time in the U.S. at all (filmmakers, you need at least five times as many flags, even in the pre-MacCarthyan era, to capture how obsessed Americans are about themselves). Harry Potter has become quintessentially British, and is up there with Doctor Who and the queen as an icon of the U.K., whether British people like it or not. I wasn’t expecting Fantastic Beasts to be quintessentially American (nor do I think it should have been — the cesspool of American cities isn’t exactly the sort of place to host your charming European fairy tale about the wonders of magical creatures), but it seems like the only reason it was set outside of the U.K. was to distinguish it visually from the Harry Potter films. Why set the story in New York if it might as well have been any other large city and you never see the camera move more than three stories up? Why invent a new magical government if it operates more or less exactly like the Ministry of Magic? And why give the magical government such a silly name? Why create a new magical school (and also give it a silly name) if all you’re going to do with it is drop it’s name to explain why none of the Hogwarts kids have American accents?
The new worldbuilding elements seem to be in place largely so that the main story can diverge into two unrelated stories that occasionally happen to coincide.
In the first, Newt, the protagonist, deals with the magical creatures introduced in this film by way of a suitcase MacGuffin. His creatures escape so shenanigans can ensue throughout New York, which as I’ve already mentioned is the dullest iteration of that plot summary one could imagine. He’s given a muggle sidekick who, while a charming vector for the audience and easily the best character in the film, mainly serves to be the butt of a bunch of puerile jokes and ask questions for the audience. Also, his mind gets wiped at the end of the film, and while perhaps a subversion of the audience’s natural desire to see the character retain his knowledge of the wizarding world, it’s still unnecessary and doesn’t count much in favor of the series’ attempt to alleviate what I might call its muggle racism. This is the first major muggle character we get, and he’s just a fat idiot who gets shafted for no fucking reason right at the end. And he doesn’t even really lose it, because his obligatory heterosexual love interest discovers his subconscious recalls the creatures in the form of intricate breaded creations when she comes in to the bakery, which is a steaming load of bullshit.
The second part of the main plot is about as secondary as it can get, and aside from exactly two scenes, none of the main characters ever interacts with any of the characters from the secondary plot. This would be aggravating enough if the unrelated plot (or the main plot for that matter) was good enough to stand on its own, but it features a somehow more boring copy of the Ministry of Magic, an annoying horrible foster mother character who hasn’t quite moved past the eighteenth century yet, and not one but TWO predictable plot twists, one of which breaks established rules and the other of which I don’t think really counts as a plot twist anyway. I don’t know, can you still call it a plot twist if Death Vader turns out to be a different more minor but supposedly important villain you wouldn’t know unless you read a wiki article on the guy? I mean, he’s Dumbledore’s ex-boyfriend, but you’re far more optimistic than me if you think there’s going to be any tasteful gay interaction in the next film, considering no Harry Potter film has ever even mentioned the subject and the author of the series seems to think homosexuality is limited to one character per franchise. I’ll be surprised if Dumbledore doesn’t have a fake girlfriend in the next film because, hey, his gay boyfriend turned out to be evil and we don’t want people thinking Dumbledore is anything like that.
Part Three: The Yakuza, a Platypus, and Fat Jokes
I have a number of other, smaller gripes about this film that are only worth a brief mention or two, so rather than try to fit them together into a coherent paragraph, here they are as a list:
- American wizards call muggles “nomajs,” which is a stupid word to begin with, and doubly stupid when you realize we’re not the ones who went, “Oh, hey, you know this thing you rub on pencil markings to remove them? Yeah, let’s call that a rubber. You know, because it rubs things. And the mechanical box that takes you up and down? Let’s call that a lift. You know, because it lifts things. And you know those sweet sugary things you eat –” I think the writers are mistaking Americans for Australians.
- The stupid platypus that’s so obviously designed to sell toys doesn’t even do anything with the gold, it just stores it in its pouch. Where’s the fucking tension in that? There aren’t any consequences to it stealing jewelry, and the pouch animation is some of the worst in the film.
- I suspect this film was released in 3-D. You know why I say that? Because like every dumb film made for release in 3-D, it has gimmicky effects where things fly at the camera. Fuck the people who think that ever makes a film more engaging to anyone older than two.
- Eddie Redmane oinking
- The stupid suitcase has a muggle-proof switch, latches, and a little workshop with a door to keep creatures from getting out, yet they still do. Twine, however, is all you need to stop them escaping for some stupid reason.
- A fucking rhinoceros can fit into the suitcase without problem, but a fat muggle struggles.
- This film has Hobbit levels of body humor that is only funny if you’re under six.
- Newt conveniently has exactly the same species of rare monster that’s terrorizing the city living in his suitcase.
- I don’t care what sort of excuses you come up with, by the logic of the obscuri in this film, Harry would have died and turned into one of these things long before he got to Hogwarts.
- Which character is pervy toward underage boys? Is it the only gay character in the film, perchance? Why, yes, yes it is.
- The eagle’s abilities are absurdly convenient for the situation at hand. Fawkes was silly too, but at least the healing tears of convenience were pre-established.
- Why is this one lady with a weird accent so concerned about magic, and why are there people paying her any attention? I know the U.S. has a lot of religious nutters, and probably had even more in the early 20th century, but even here she seems out of place. If the Harry Potter universe takes place in a world where muggles are more suspicious because magic and wizards actually exist, then why is this the first time we’ve seen this aside from the Dursleys, who had much more valid reasons for being suspicious of magic given they had a wizard living with them?
- The main character’s love interest arrests him immediately, and not only do the other MACUSA people not care until they have reason to believe his creatures killed someone, but the love interest character is breaking rank and all she gets is a slap on the wrist.
- I can guarantee that no one in the U.S. would ever shorten “Magical Congress of the United States of America” so that it rhymes with “Yakuza.” Even in the pre-McDonald’s years of the early 20th century, we would be calling it McUSA, Mac USA, the MC, or else spell out each letter. Or, given American wizards don’t interact with non-wizards, just “Congress.” Pretty much anything other than what the writers came up with.
- Speaking of which, who’s the president? That seems like something American wizards would care about a lot more than this movie implies.
- The magical congress gets things done despite the obscuri and other silliness in this film. Come on, writers, that’s just unrealistic.
- Does the United States not have a magical customs? Newt is definitely smuggling his creatures either way.
- Why the fuck was Newt in New York in the first place? He says he’s going to Arizona, but wouldn’t he have a train or something to catch shortly after landing in that case? Or, and here’s what really gets me, do wizards not have some sort of long-range immediate transportation? Like, I don’t know, apparation? Surely it shouldn’t take that long for wizards to get anywhere, right?
- Why is that one goblin done up to look like the actor who plays him? It’s easily the most disturbing CGI in a film that already has somewhat shitty effects.
- The dialogue in this film can be atrocious overall, but it reached a point halfway through (around the point where Dumbledore’s name gets dropped) where I started to pity the writers for being bad at their jobs. Only after watching the film did I realize the screenwriter was not the third writer for The Last Airbender or Transformers, But Rowling herself. So yeah, that’s unfortunate.
- There are two important female characters in this film, neither of whom does anything interesting, and both of whom exist mainly to ensure to the audience that the two leads are not gay. There is no reason to give either male lead a love interest, and the chemistry doesn’t even make sense in Newt’s case. I don’t have a problem with these characters existing, but all they do is dote over or complain about the leads. The more the film tries to insist Newt and the muggle guy aren’t meant for one another, the more I’m going to read their interactions with exactly that subtext.
All that said, I did find a few things to enjoy:
As mentioned, the creature feeding scene was fun, and the designs of the thunderbird and occamy are interesting enough that the poor graphic quality often doesn’t matter when they’re on-screen.
The muggle character has a delightful optimism about him and embodies the wonder of the magical world that is lacking otherwise.
While I think the delivery of the character was hampered by the plot and dialogue, I do respect what the series was trying to do with Newt’s character in making their protagonist a soft-spoken more effeminate male archetype with a passion for animals but an inability to articulate that passion to the other characters. I share some of the same personality traits and loved seeing a Hagrid-like character as the lead for a film in the moments when his love for his creatures shines.
And, although I found the obscurus subplot frustrating and the creatures themselves dull to look at, I actually liked the subplot surrounding the obscurus boy’s personal history. The idea of a person’s inner shame and fear about who they are turning into a literal monster that eventually consumes them, used by an exceptional individual to their advantage, is a sound story idea. If the boy had been in any way related to the main plot or characters, or if he had survived and the end of the film had focused on the complicated situation of how to deal with someone so messed up and dangerous, the film’s main plot would have been much stronger.
As it is, the film is a waste of time that will offend few and entertain those who set their expectations low or are determined to love it no matter what. I see it as a film largely directed toward a younger audience, despite some boring and dark scenes. It has a strong reek of The Hobbit films in that sense, but it’ll entertain the moppets in a less annoying way than poorly-animated sing-along crap. A lot of the Harry Potter fans I know tend to be very forgiving because of their nostalgia for the series and because it’s simple and cheerful when so many films released these days try so hard to be gritty they become melodramatic. I respect that, and I won’t tell people they can’t enjoy this film, or that if they do, there’s something wrong with them. There are things to like, and some people might find it fun. I just didn’t see anything in it that made it worth the time necessary to watch it, outside of the material it provided for me to write this review.