The film follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the future author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, on his first trip to the United States. The dark wizard Grindelwald has just begun terrorizing the wizarding world, and wizard communities are cracking down trying to locate him. Scamander has come to New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures, as he is studying them in an attempt to prove to the wizarding community at large that they are not to be feared. But some of Scamander’s creatures get loose, bringing him into contact with a Muggle named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and a wizard cop named Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Together, along with Porpendia’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), they attempt to get Scamander’s creatures back and understand some of the strange disturbances that may reveal the wizarding community to the Muggles.
Even as I write this review, I am fairly conflicted regarding this movie and my opinion of it. There are elements that I found excellent and exactly what I wanted, but there are others that are poorly paced and not nearly as interesting. I think I can break the movie down into halves, one which is insanely well put together and intriguing and one which is kind of dull and mediocre in comparison.
Let’s start with the dull half: the beasts. One would think that the most interesting part of a film with this title would be the mythical creatures, but most of them just end up failing to impress. Lackluster CGI creatures fill certain scenes and though at the surface Scamander’s quest to make wizards understand the beauty of these creatures seems interesting, it feels like lighter fare compared to the rest of the movie. It lacks the whimsy of many of the original Potter films, feeling tacked-on and lacking in weight comparted to the film’s darker scenes. This goes, to some extent, for the four protagonists as well. Though all four actors bring in good performances, the characters feel too similar. They are all wacky misfits, each with similar quirks that make them somewhat indistinguishable. The movie lacks a straight man, like Harry was in the original series, to anchor that side of the plot.
Fortunately, when the film chooses to focus on the darker side of the 1920s New York wizarding community, things start to get a lot more interesting. The dark magic forces that have been making disturbances in the city caused a movement called the Second Salem, a group of Muggles who believe witches and wizards do exist and seek to eradicate them. The scenes which focus on the aurors (wizard cops), the Second Salem group and the sinister magic that is terrorizing the city is far darker and more fascinating than the material involving the beasts. Add the references to Grindelwald (whom huge Harry Potter fans will recognize from the Deathly Hallows novel) and elements of the 1920s environment like wizard speakeasies, and you’ve got a creative and interesting look at the Potter universe. These segments of the film were excellent, reminding me of why I was excited for this movie in the first place.
Do you understand why I am conflicted? I wanted to love every aspect of this film. I wanted to come out head-over-heels in love with the Harry Potter universe again. And, to some extent, I did. There are elements of this film that are absolutely spectacular, really proving that the universe has a lot more to offer outside the original series. But there are also lengthy segments that I found mediocre and completely lacking in depth. Luckily, the great bits probably see a bit more screen time than the mediocre bits, but it doesn’t make those segments any less ‘blah’. I think the positives outweigh the negatives in the case of Fantastic Beasts, but I can’t say I didn’t leave the theatre wishing that the film had focused more on the dark and deep than the flashy.