Midway through Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — around the time when a helmet-haired Samantha Morton starts beating a helmet-haired Ezra Miller with a belt— I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time while watching a Hollywood franchise movie: true suspense.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. Sure, I could suspect that, most likely, most of the “good guys” wouldn’t get killed, and that some semblance of order would at least temporarily be restored. The Harry Potter novels — and other works of their ilk — are not tragedies, but rather moral tales with redemptive conclusions. But through the assembly line of Hollywood sequels, remakes, reboots, revivals, prequels, and adaptations, I’ve become accustomed to going into a movie knowing the story beforehand: the question that such movies answer is how excitingly they can possibly render a story you already know, not “what is this story?”
And Fantastic Beasts, while kind of a prequel, was something different — an entirely original story. Unfortunately, though this first of five films is whimsical, attractive, and fun, it doesn’t quite live up to the potential of a new J.K. Rowling story unfolding for the first time, because ultimately there’s just not much story to unfold. I saw the film twice: the first time, I liked it wholeheartedly, as my Harry Potter childhood fanboy side lapped up the manna it had been deprived of for a few years. The second time, once that fanatical inner fan had been satiated, and normal me understood that I hadn’t so much watched a story as a compelling but mindless triptych of cute animal Youtube videos, The Great Gatsby and a generic New York-toppling doomsday scenario. (There’s also a very light dosage of political allegory about intolerance and radicalization thrown in, though I’m hoping that’ll develop to something more weighty as the films continue.) Fantastic Beasts, in its period pairing of whimsy and dread, feels at once feels tonally and aesthetically sweet, inventive, and bold for Hollywood, while somehow also feeling too safe in its actual narrative.
While the Harry Potter novels were loaded with plot (and could make for clunky adaptations because of it), Fantastic Beasts feels smoother — and less interesting — because it’s not (really) an adaptation. It has two main narratives, both of which collide early on. First, there’s Newt Scamander’s story — a basic narrative akin to Goosebumps: the Movie or Ghostbusters, wherein a menagerie of (here, mostly remarkably cute) abnormal things are unleashed on a public that has no idea what to make of them. Eddie Redmayne’s Scamander, who’s come to America from England to handle some supernatural zoology, gets himself in a bind when a suitcase full of “fantastic beasts” falls into the hands of a “no-maj” (American muggle) named Jacob Kowalski. Jacob just wants to be a baker, but now thanks to the suitcase swap, he becomes part of a magical beast chase, going after a tiny platypus with a jewelry fetish, an ancient monkey who likes to make himself invisible, a snake-bird that can fill any space, a pustulous rhinoceros with a taste for romance, and the film’s antagonist: a graceful, dark blob that’s running amok in the city and murdering people.
Trying to help catch these beasties is Tina Goldstein, an “auror” — a dark-magic fighter/law enforcer — played by Katherine Waterston, and her telepathic Betty Boop sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol. That’s one side of the story. The other side cryptically involves the rise of a dark wizard named Grindelwald, and a plot to harness the aforementioned dark blob. Intertwined in all of this is a fanatical group of “No-Majs” called Second Salem (led by Morton and the son she beats, played by Miller), who want to bring back the era of witch trials. And what, pray tell, happens when you put a gaggle of funny beasts, zealots, and a growing thirst for dark magic among the magical population together? You guessed it: as in just about every superhero movie ever made, an SFX team gets to spend a lot of money making the great New York City topple.
It’s not just the narrative that seems flimsy compared to Harry Potter. The problem is the protagonist. The CGI beasts, I’ll say, give a performance that convinced me of their cuteness and eccentric charm; Redmayne’s Scamander, however, did not. He was far hammier than any of the beasts, playing awkward/shy/secretly brilliant with irksomely quaint self-awareness. Luckily, Waterston’s Tina and Dan Fogler’s Jacob are both vital characters; but the film is also lacking in the wonderful supporting cast of eccentrics we saw in HP‘s Hogwarts professors. Character nuance across the board — beyond Tina and Jacob — is rather scarce. Here, we have some stern and apt (Carmen Ejogo as magical President Seraphina) politicians, some corrupt bureaucrats (Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves), Ezra Miller as the tormented Credence, seemingly instructed to do naught but convulse and act creepy, Samantha Morton as the witch-hate-proselytizing crazy, and that’s really it. And, beyond a black female president, it should be noted that, in this film whose political undertones are about oppression and bigotry, the other two characters of color are a. a jazz singing goblin, and b. an executioner among whose only lines are “don’t that look nice?!” The film of course has to contend with being set in a segregated period, and it hints at the disparities between the no-maj world and the magical world therein — but it does so…mostly with extras of color.
Again, this film pairs an exciting freshness — in the period vision of the wizarding world it paints, in its menagerie of beasts, in its whimsy — coupled with disappointment about the standard way its narrative and characters are treated. As a cultural mashup, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a delectable formula: the flapper era and the wizarding world are a handsome pair. The visual charm of Rowling’s wizarding world — rendered by four directors in the original Harry Potter franchise — often came from its anachronisms/that world’s rejection of technology for magically souped up antiquity, so you can only imagine the endless visual charm here.
Certain moments of simple loveliness, as when a strudel is baked and powdered-sugared in mid-air in a cozily cramped Manhattan apartment filled with a group of people who’ll become fast friends, will impress the less-jaded, and maybe even the hungry among the jaded, with a sense of gratitude towards the undying gift J.K. Rowling has for imbuing even her darkest tales with a lot of warmth.
But Fantastic Beasts has yet to live up to the potential — and it has a lot of it! — for a Hollywood franchise treading new ground. We now know that the next film will take place in another city, and that the films will continue to trace Grindelwald’s rise, and that’s pretty much it. It almost feels like a gift (and yeah, it’s sad that it does) that a studio would invest so much money ($180 million for this film) in a story that hasn’t already been told in some other form. Hopefully for the next films, J.K. Rowling will use that rare creative freedom to do something more original, something dazzling in substance as well as style.