Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Review
By Carl Cottingham
No other property has defined Warner Brothers in the 21st century better then the Harry Potter franchise. Ever since the final installment Deathly Hallows Part II exited theaters in 2011, the studio has been chasing a ghost, or horcrux as it were, to try and recapture the blockbuster magic that was the Wizarding World. Now, five years after Harry Potter departed the popular conscious, Warner Bros. has enlisted J.K. Rowling herself to script a brand-new look into the world she has created. Yet, in the studio’s zealous pursuit of recapturing the lightning, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suffers from a crisis of identity, torn between appealing to a fresh audience while simultaneously trying to recapture the people that launched the original Harry Potter franchise to blockbuster heights.
Fantastic Beasts is certainly a unique looking fantasy film, eschewing the present day for 1926 New York City. Through the eyes of the No-Maj (the American term for Muggle, non-magic) Jacob Kowalski, played by a warm and funny Dan Fogler, we learn how the American Wizarding community functions and how it contrasts with its far better known cousin across the Atlantic. Its visual aesthetics are art deco design, streamlined and, to a degree, darker then the initial whimsy found in the first few Harry Potter films. It makes for a nice contrast and fits with the older audience that had previously grown up with Rowling’s work. Unfortunately, for the casual audience, the film devotes much of its time to building the world of American magic for what is set to be a five-part film series, often forsaking its story in process.
This is not to say that the story is not compelling when it hits its stride, however. Eddie Redmayne’s Eleventh Doctor-inspired Newt Scamander is a fun eccentric, even though most of his past is left unanswered and we still know very little about him. Katherine Waterson’s Tina Goldstein is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud magical investigator that I grew to like but felt as though she did not contribute much to the grand scheme of the film. Likewise, Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves injects some degree of intrigue to the proceedings, between tracking down Newt following his beasts’ escaping and his collusion with Ezra Miller’s Credence. Miller, to my surprise, I found fascinating, not necessarily because he was the most memorable of the entire cast but because his character’s troubled persona made his side-plot more interesting, especially once it collided with the larger story.
The titular Fantastic Beasts are quite the sight behold. The visual effects to bring these various creatures to life is high caliber and it’s a testament to how far technology has progressed to bring some of Rowling’s more outlandish creatures to life. Yet I am constantly reminded of the Harry Potter connection, with the suggestion of a far larger world at play and a bigger villain to go with it. In addition, there are entire scenes dedicated to namedropping, and somewhat having fun with, elements of the original series such as Albus Dumbledore being Newt’s professor and the Hogwarts school itself. For a film billing itself as a spin-off prequel, it is haunted by the Boy Who Lived in many ways and does not allow itself to break free from his shadow. As I saw the original films, I was not as bothered as others might be but the concern is real for people with no prior knowledge.
There is wonder to be had in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them but I have my reservations. The overall story and cast is good and the film itself is expertly well-made. However, its focus on world-building is a detriment to the experience, making it obvious that more is to come. For myself, this is not a problem but I can see a viewer focused intently on story will feel as though they are not having the full experience. I suspect, however, with magnificent creatures and magic pouring out of New York, audiences will be more then willing to overlook this fact as long as it leads to more wondrous things.