Despite being avid Harry Potter fans, Sam and I waited to see Fantastic Beasts. After watching what happened with J.K. Rowling and The Cursed Child, we were a little wary to see what she had come up with. Sam was in the camp of people upset that Newt Scamander wasn’t a POC, and I was nervous after hearing the synopsis from The Cursed Child. Still, we figured it was only a matter of time before we finally sat down to see it.
Reviews had been mixed from what little I read, but you know me, I want to form my own opinions. Sometimes, I like things other people don’t, or hate things other people love. I’m trying to be better, more open, but we had to watch it first.
Now it’s done, and we should have a talk about it. You want to know if Fantastic Beast is worthy of following up on the Harry Potter movies, watch it and stop over here for a read. It’s a complicated answer.
Them Roaring 20s
I’d be a millionaire if everything I watched with a good premise paid off (wouldn’t that be nice). As always, train’s pulling into Spoiler-ville, so this is your last chance to get off before something gets ruined for you. Go watch the movie for yourself and come back if you want. Otherwise, all aboard.
Newt Scamander arrives in New York city on a self-given mission, and the film then becomes “How Much Can One Person Fuck Up: The Movie”. Characters get sucked into the mayhem, whether they want to be or not. All the while, something mysterious is attacking people in New York and threatening to expose the clandestine Wizarding World to the no-maj (no magic) community. And there ya go. A setup too simple to fail.
In this case, it’s all about the characters – specifically the supporting cast. Comedic relief is a tightrope walk, but Dan Fogler as Jacob really nails the role and gives great heart to the film. You could go see the movie entirely for him and not be disappointed, he does a great job with the role and takes it seriously. Porpentina and Queenie are also fun and provide some great moments – heartfelt and humorous. Watch it for them, over anything else. Even Colin Farrell manages a good antagonist and Ezra Miller does good work with a more reserved role, perhaps a little different from his previous roles.
Other than that, the special effects are on par with the rest of the films. The creatures are creative and engaging. The sequences inside the luggage are the most compelling in the film. You can feel that Harry Potter vibe – magic is everywhere and it’s wonderful in its absurdity.
A Strange Beast
Having said that, when it comes to the soul of the movie, that’s all Fantastic Beasts has going for it. Much like The OA, I thought the film made some weird choices. There’s some tonal dissonance that takes away from the immersion, and I think it’s worth noting.
For a movie called Fantastic Beasts, the Beasts themselves are a minor role. When the film is about the creatures, things are fun and whimsical and well-paced. But the true point of the film is only tangentially related to any sort of beast. The Obscurus is less a beast and more an entity, somewhere in between human and creature. So Newt knows about it and what it is, but his expertise with creature’s doesn’t help as much as talking with the person being effected, Credence (I warned you about spoilers). So the plot sort of works itself out. Newt is involved, but he really isn’t the instigator. He helps with the resolution, but doesn’t really solve the problem. The plot forgets about him when convenient, and then remembers the film is about him, and he has to fight his way back in.
It’s made even more difficult when you’re by far the least interesting character on the cast. Newt feels very similar to another quirky brit who runs around with companions. Except in that instance, the Doctor tends to be the most significant character with the best lines. The companions are there to lift him up, much like Watson for Sherlock Holmes. I’m not saying that’s a winning formula – it makes characters come off as spoiled and perfect – but that’s how it works for shows with similar setups. In FB, all the other characters get to say the cool things. Newt is there just to fuck shit up for everyone else, and he doesn’t really do a great job cleaning it up. His relationships feel rushed and flimsy, people just gravitate to him and then say they like him because the plot says they’re supposed to. It doesn’t feel genuine. Eddie Redmayne does the best he can, but no offense, he wasn’t some stalwart actor to begin with. It’s a good effort, but it doesn’t connect.
A Wizarding World?
If there’s something Harry Potter has always excelled in, it’s world-building. It worked out nice for a place Rowling knew well, she grew up in England. But she doesn’t know a thing about New York City, and it shows. First thing Sam said while watching the film – Everyone is white, no one has an accent. Her family comes from NYC, she’s been there before visiting family and I’ve traveled there before with mine. People who live there will tell you, the city breathes, has a life all its own. Its soul comes from the people who live there, in all their diversity, experience, and struggle. It’s a hard place, but it’s real. In contrast, the NYC in FB feels nothing like the New York both of us know. It lacks a soul, that spark of life. It just feels like an urban area you could inject into any story. New York is all about its identity, but it’s not here.
“But Greyson, it’s set in the distance past, almost a century. The city would have a different vibe, it wouldn’t be like the city you know.” – Some Fool
I reject that statement. People who have lived there the longest will tell you, it’s a city that transcends time. Everything is constantly changing, yet it always stays the same. That’s what makes it so special, NYC has always been NYC, even if you travel back in time. People have always been people, so the city would probably be more recognizable than you think. The one presented in FB doesn’t feel at all like New York City – just a placeholder for a city in America. It’s urban, there’s POCs everywhere and everyone has an accent. It shouldn’t take a lot of “research” to figure that out. The characters who are supposed to have accents fall in and out of them every other word. No one brings it home, not even the supporting cast.
The MACUSA was flat. It looked strange, but it lacked the feeling that came with the Ministry of Magic. England’s style of governance felt inspired and it made sense within the rules of the world she made. The Congress, on the other hand, seems thrown together. “This is what America would be like, right?” Everyone’s a jerk and no one takes anyone seriously until it’s too late.
Well, that’s fairly accurate to some degree, but it lacked the whimsy from the previous films. Maybe it’s unfair to judge it by those standards, but how can you not? I’m no patriot, but I think they could have made something that better reflected the soul of America. Instead, the MACUSA feels totalitarian, which for anyone who knows New York or America is the opposite of what people would want, especially in the 20s. Hell, the magical capital punishment was one of the most fucked up things I’ve watched, and I’ve seen shit like SAW. That was not okay, and no one takes the time to say that’s not really something they should be doing with magic. England isn’t much better with Azkaban Prison, but they don’t kill people. That makes a statement. Maybe they were trying to shame America for having the death penalty and showing people just being okay with it, but it doesn’t feel that way. Just seems like they thought it would be weird and creepy and threw it in to put Porpentina and Newt in danger.
In short, it all lacked soul.
Trapped in the Past
Fantastic Beasts is weighed down by the lore of its own world and struggles to form a new world while giving nods to the old. Grindelwald makes an appearance, but it feels more forced than anything. He’s a bad guy from the past that hasn’t had a lot of screen time, so they feel like they can use them here and get some Intertexuality points. But it doesn’t land at all, we don’t spend nearly enough time with him for it to be relevant. The only motivation we have for his actions come from other sources not present in the film, so people just jumping into the series will have no context for why he’s doing anything in the film.
You can see the phenomena in real time watching Graves – his character illuminates two of the major problems with the film in tandem. Following his character is compelling, even if you don’t see all the moving parts. He wants to harness Credence and is really good at wizard battles – it’s pretty fun watching him fight people. But as soon as you reveal that he’s Grindelwald, just like Okonkwo, Things Fall Apart (I’d like to thank high school English class for that amazing joke). That means all of his plans were an attempt to gain followers and overthrow authority, but he has so little to do with what’s happening. And it’s not like they keep him there in America, you know what happens to him later, there’s no stakes in defeating him. I wasn’t wowed by the fact that it was Grindelwald in disguise. Just kind of disappointed. In its place, they could have made something new, taken us to some unexplored part of wizarding history. Instead, we get wrapped up in the things we’ve already talked about, trying hastily to paste them on where they don’t need to be. It feels cowardly, like they were afraid to risk making something new that would upset the fans. I know the things Rowling has done recently have been letdowns, but at least she tried something new. Even if it didn’t work, she got out there and tried to forge some new paths (could have done it better, but a small credit for trying).
And Johnny Depp looks hella dumb. Who the heck oversaw his design? It looks like he walked off from a 90s boyband, frosted hair and all. It just looks dumb.
All Was Not Well
I understand what they were trying to do, but it didn’t pan out the way they envisioned. Or it did, but it didn’t live up to its predecessors. Not all of the Harry Potter films are great, the later ones decline in quality, but we grew up with the first ones and they were crafted with love (and an understandable level of greed), rather than a complete cash grab. Honestly, I could have come up with a more consistent movie with just the characters. I can do it right now.
Newt Scamander is actively working on his book. The MACUSA has only just been formed, and with magic spreading across the United States in an official capacity, Newt travels there to document creatures he’s never seen before, so we get to add some new things to the Harry Potter lore. One of them is causing problems, which takes all of Newt’s worldly skill to figure out. Other characters get involved, including the members of the MACUSA itself, who want some success for their new administration to prove to the rest of the world that they’re a legitimate international magical organization. There’s no mention of anything that’s happened in known wizarding past, and instead we forge some new paths and make some new lore. There could even be some discrepancy between whether something is a Being or Beast, if there’s some sign of communication but it’s not readily apparent. There you go, I just came up with that on the spot and I already like it better. You can even throw in the same characters, since the plot isn’t really concerned with them anyway. Take out Grindelwald, keep Graves and have him want to use Newt’s specific knowledge for his own personal gain, and boom, better movie. And it only took a paragraph of work.
In conclusion, more creatures, less references, and everything would have been better. There were some good character moments, but they don’t make up for the rest of the film. If you like Harry Potter, you should check it out. It fails, but in an interesting way that’s worth talking about. I give it five absurdly large suitcase habitats out of ten.