The Harry Potter books and movies were set in an amazing, magical world. The joy of those stories was getting to experience all that wonder along with Harry, as he learned about magic wands, fantastic beasts, and everything else that was hidden from our everyday lives. Over seven books and eight movies, that thirst for knowledge was always the strongest driving force, and we are learning things about the world and its history right up until the end. Even after it was all over, I still wanted any more details JK Rowling was willing to share, and I don’t think I was alone.
So the idea of a new story set in the United States is immediately appealing. We know very little of the wizards and witches of America, and it’s super hard to imagine Harry Potter characters living in like rural Wyoming. For that reason, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which borrows it’s title from one of the textbooks at Hogwarts, still seemed like a good idea, even if it was an obvious cash-grab. It was still written by Rowling, it was still offering something to franchise fans.
Here’s where I ran into trouble trying to write this review. I was trying to come up with an ending to this sentence: “Set in New York City in the mid-Twenties, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the story of…” And I don’t know what to put there. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is clearly the main character, I know that, but I’m not really sure how to describe his story. Most of his arc is totally incidental to the villains who will surely be recurring over the next few sequel movies. His stated goal is to release a beast in Arizona, something he never comes close to doing and later finds out he doesn’t even need to do. Even his book is already written, he just needs to publish it but hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
Given the title, you might think this is a movie about magical monsters. And while there are a lot of magical monsters in the movie, they don’t really… matter? They cause damage that is immediately repaired. They endanger people who in every case end up totally unharmed. Newt loves them, other people say they are dangerous, but no one’s opinion changes. Honestly, they really do seem like genuine safety hazards, I don’t get where Newt is coming from.
A lot of the movie is fun, don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of exciting chases and fights. The parts where we learn about the magical Big Apple is interesting, especially in the ways that the culture is both progressive and regressive (the magical president is an African American woman, but magical people aren’t allowed to have relationships with non-magical people). But the discovery is muted by the fact that most of the characters are fully-trained adult wizards, who can freely teleport and manipulate the world. They don’t have to struggle with blending in and getting around like Harry did, and the world feels smaller for it.
What I think happened here is that JK Rowling started writing a new movie, got pretty far into it, then realized she could write a new movie franchise. To make that work, she would need to set in-motion of big, evil conspiracy, something that could connect, let’s say, five movies. But she had already written most of the one movie, why throw that out? Instead, she just tacked on another story (a much, much darker one) and probably moved on to figuring out the sequels. Good enough, right?
Wrong! The fun and care-free Newt story shares screen time with Ezra Miller’s depressing tale about an oppressed little boy who is abused by his mother and taken advantage of by Colin Farrell. These are obviously the scenes that pushed this movie up to a PG-13 rating, and its tragic ending is muted by the fact that none of our main characters had anything to do with it or did anything meaningful to change it. And the big final reveal? It’s so disappointing it actually got laughs from the audience I saw the movie with.
What we’re left with is the genuine opportunity for the next movie in this series to not bring back any of the heroes. That’s downright bizarre to say, but it ends with them parting ways and honestly there isn’t a reason for them to come back together, really. Don’t say love, neither of those potential love stories made sense. As fun as it is to get back into the wizarding world, it turns out you actually do need a compelling story to make the trip worthwhile.