J.K. Rowling continues to expand her Harry Potter universe through the eyes of Newt Scamander, magizoologist and writer of the book “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” It is the 1920s and magical America is in a state of emergency, struggling to deal with strange occurences in the city and also straining under increasing persecution from the No-Majs (that’s American slang for “Muggles”), and also from the threat of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, who’s apparently running loose in magical Europe. Into this New York comes Newt Scamander and his case of magical creatures – illegal under magical American law that prohibits beast ownership. Mishaps occur (of course), and some of Newt’s creatures escape, which does not in the least contribute to the peace of mind of the Magical Congress of the USA (MACUSA).
The Stuff I Liked
- The magical beasts are an interesting lot, ranging from cute (Occamy and Niffler) to weird (Demiguise) to grand and imposing (Erumpent and Thunderbird). Well-imagined and pretty well-designed too. I like the Thunderbird best
- Eddie Redmayne manages to inject some of his personal charm into the character of Newt. It’s quite a feat to make an awkward, introverted character appealing on the big screen. I think my heart broke when he was pleading with the MACUSA officials to not harm his creatures because they don’t understand, and “nothing in there is dangerous.”
- Queenie (Alison Sudol) was surprisingly appealing – rather like Charlotte in The Princess and the Frog. Queenie and Charlotte are both characters that can come across as flighty and air-headed but they’re also real sweethearts and both end up helping the heroes quite a bit in their stories, although Queenie does more than Charlotte. Also appealing was Dan Fogler as hapless No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, who gets mixed up with the magical world when his bag gets mixed up with Newt’s.
The Stuff I Didn’t Like
- The pacing was not the best. There were parts where the movie just seemed to come to a slow halt before picking up again minutes later. It was a bit like driving along a road and getting stopped by traffic lights along the way. Cases in point:
– The rogue Niffler was funny for about half a minute and then it got tiresome. Entirely too much time spent on chasing the Niffler, which ultimately served no purpose except to have precipitated matters by escaping in a Muggle bank, I guess. (It escaped twice, so Newt has to chase it around twice in the movie – once in a bank, and once in a jewelry store. Both times the scene drags on a little too long. I found myself wondering: Is it not possible to just Accio (summon) the Niffler? Harry could summon his broom from within Hogwarts when he was standing outside the castle so…)
– Also, the stuff between Senator Shaw and his father felt slightly out of place to me, but I’m guessing that it’s setting up Shaw’s younger brother for future movies. But in this movie, I felt their scenes didn’t really contribute to the story. Well, except when Shaw got killed by the Obscurial.
– Too much time spent on the magical beasts overall, not just on the Niffler. The Erumpent was the biggest time-waster, maybe. I thought it was pointless to have Newt try to lure her back into his bag with a complicated mating dance which went nowhere in the end since she took off after Kowalski instead…
- Gellert Grindelwald’s appearance. That hairstyle does not suit Johnny Depp, especially not from the front, and when combined with whatever makeup they put on him. It makes him look strange, as opposed to scary.
- There was maybe too much reliance on the magical beasts as dei ex machina (as one reviewer accurately described them). Newt barely cast a spell in the movie. I guess it’s apt for a movie titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but it took a little something out of the story.
- Some things were unclear, and I’m not certain if it’s due to the editing or the script or just the overall storytelling. I was puzzled as to how Newt knew at the end that Graves was not really Graves. A friend who watched the movie with me pointed out that it was probably during Newt’s interrogation, when Graves was oddly fixated on the Obscurus. And it took my friend two screenings to grasp that – she didn’t get it either on the first watch, so the second time round she was actively looking for it. That’s not a marker of good storytelling…
- I felt oddly detached from Porpentina Goldstein, the disgraced auror played by Katherine Waterston, and the ostensible second lead of the movie. They tried to make her a sympathetic character by having her clearly feel sorry about the potential fate of Newt’s magical menagerie in the hands of MACUSA, and by showing some of her childhood moments, but I wasn’t convinced. The romantic hints at the end of the movie also didn’t quite make it for me – there was too little development of that beforehand. Queenie was a more compelling character, and so was the ill-fated romance between Queenie and Kowalski.
- The cinematography was not my favourite type. Did the movie have to look so gloomy and bleak? It seemed to be suffering from DC-itis – some parts might as well have been shot in black and white, since they drained all the vibrancy from the images. It did not help that a good many scenes took place at night, and some took place in dark alleyways or darkened rooms at night. Perhaps it’s a directorial issue though. David Yates handled the last few Harry Potter movies and those had similar colour schemes too. It could be argued that the colours (or lack thereof) reflect the mood of the story – after all, it takes place in a troubled time for magical USA. But… but… Newt and his beasts – shouldn’t they have injected significantly more light and colour into the story? Newt himself, with his teal coat (and a lovely coat it is, I might add), stands out in crowd scenes because everyone is dressed in depressing colours, but apart from that, very little else is bright. Even the scenes inside his bag of beasts weren’t as bright as they could’ve been. They were more colourful, yes, but it felt like someone had laid a darkening filter over the shots so that even those were not as bright and happy as they ought to have been.
- Plot holes.
– After thinking about it, I am less convinced that the interrogation alone was enough to alert Newt that the problem with Graves was that he wasn’t who he seemed to be. I could understand it if, based on that interrogation, he’d figured out that Graves is not a good man. But to go from “he’s not a good man” to “he’s not really Percival Graves” is too big a leap. How did Newt know to cast the Revelio spell at the end to reveal Grindelwald?
– Ok, so MACUSA – and Graves specifically – confiscated Newt’s bag. They clearly went through his things and his beasts, since Graves produces the Obscurus to question Newt about it. That means he must have walked around and seen all Newt’s other creatures. When Newt showed the Thunderbird to Kowalski, he told Kowalski to hang back and said that the Thunderbird doesn’t like strange people. The Thunderbird is huge and wasn’t chained or in a cage – neither were all the other creatures. So… if a stranger like Graves sauntered in and started poking around, the Thunderbird didn’t do a thing? What, it sat on its perch and just stared at him?
Wow, there’s a lot more “dislikes” than I thought I’d have initially.
Perhaps the movie suffers from being number one in a planned series of five. When it has to set up everything else later, there’s a lot of explaining that needs to be done and that generally detracts from the movie. I have a feeling that Fantastic Beasts would have been better as a TV series.