To put it quite simply, the Harry Potter franchise is the biggest on earth, even to this day. Every film in the original series made mega money for everyone involved. Prisoner of Azkaban was the lowest grossing movie in the series and it still made over $700m. That’s a total that most franchises would die for, but for Harry Potter it was a bit of a disappointment. So it’s no surprise that after it all ended with The Deathly Hallows, the production companies would try to figure out a way to keep it going. And that’s exactly what they are doing with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.
Newt Scamandar (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything) arrives in America with only a briefcase full of magical monsters. However an accident sees them get loose and it is down to Newt, ex-auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) and nomaj Kowalski (Dan Fogler, Kung Fu Panda) to get them back before they end up exposing the magical community to the real world.
For a franchise that lasted for so many years, it was nice when the film started and it felt fresh. When deciding to continue this franchise, the people behind it could have gone for the easy route. They could have simply told a story about Harry and the gang’s kids in Hogwarts, which ended up being a play instead. But instead, they went back, found a book that was written for charity and then spun a movie out of it. And I appreciate that. We’ve got a complete change in setting with the film taking place in 1920’s New York, an era I love so I’ll admit I’m a bit biased. This gives Fantastic Beasts a completely different feel to the rest of the Harry Potter films while also expanding the lore that everyone is so fond of.
And boy do they make most of that setting. Not only are the costumes all completely on point, it was this that earned the Harry Potter franchise their first ever Academy Award, but they really have fun with all the period features. Yes, it is completely clichéd to have our character visit a prohibition style bar, but the twists they do on it with magic, especially Kowalski’s reaction to the giggling water, but boy it is one of the best scenes in the movie because it is just enjoyable to watch. For some reason, mixing the 1920’s and magic works better than you could possible expect.
Now Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them just needs a plot to match up and unfortunately, this is where we start to have problems. Because like many blockbusters, we can’t just have one plot which has a satisfying start, middle and finish. We have to set up for sequels and that’s what ends up being the downfall of the movie. You see as well as the plot which sees Newt chasing monsters in New York, you have the building blocks for the next lot of movies. So you have the Magical Congress of the United States of America trying to find an evil wizard called Grindelwald whose gone missing while there’s a cult like group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society trying to get people to believe that magic is real.
And those two plots are just plain dull. Firstly, we’ve done the evil wizard thing before. We did eight movies about this and we were constantly told in the many hours we watched those films that Voldemort was the most pure evil thing in the Universe. So you can’t really build up Grindelwald as these totally evil concept when we’ve seen the most evil thing in the Universe already be conquered. So you don’t care about the supposed mystique of this potential villain, so that’s a dead plot thready already. Then you have the New Salem lot. Any tension that magic will be exposed is dead simply because this is a prequel and we know what the wizarding world looks like in the future. So we have to rely on what’s going on between congress auror Graves (Colin Farrell, Phone Booth) and child of New Salem Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, We Need To Talk About Kevin) for all the tension and that doesn’t work. We get multiple scenes of them together as they search for this powerful hidden child wizard, and basically it’s the same thing over and over. Graves finds Credence, he says something intimidating, Credence whimpers and we go to the next scene. Boring.
What makes these poor plots more frustrating is that the plot I told you up at the top, the one that brought us to the party with those rather cool trailers, is actually a lot of fun. Everytime Fantastic Beasts switches back to this plot, you get us something cool and meaningful. So yes, you get sweet scenes between Newt and the monsters which are really well done. You get some nice comedic skits, especially with the Niffler who for some reason doesn’t have a soft toy plush released of him, and the big epic set pieces where they catch the larger monsters are inventive and fun to watch. If the film simply did what it told us what we were going to do, it would probably match up to the original franchise. But in all honesty, this is the plot thread which feels forgotten and only brought back up because that’s what gives the film its unique identity.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a huge disappointment. If it simply did what we wanted it to do, be a fun romp where a bunch of likable characters tried to capture monsters in 1920s New York, this would have been very good. The parts of the film which do this are very good, and hint at a better movie which has been lost to the cutting room floor. Instead what we get is some executives keen to make sure the Harry Potter franchise keeps on raking in money with more and more films being released which end up doing the same thing. What a waste.