I was going to start this review by saying that I figured it would be fairly safe to assume that anyone seeing this movie was probably a fan of the Harry Potter franchise, or at least familiar with it. And really, chances are that most of them are. I certainly hope so, since understanding the wizarding world is pretty much a pre-requisite for Fantastic Beasts; the movie not only assumes that you have watched the Harry Potter movies to at least having passing familiarity with them, but also assumes you’ve read the books enough to remember, and oh, also, hope you’ve been enjoying Pottermore, because there’s some stuff that’s probably going to see pretty random if you haven’t.
That’s not to say that Fantastic Beasts is incomprehensible without this advanced knowledge. But it does make for a far better movie-going experience, and it feels like the directors banked on people having this information beforehand. It’s a movie made for those who are already fans of the series, essentially: if you’re looking at your local theatre listings and contemplating whether or not to see this because your friend says you really ought to finally get into this whole Harry Potter business, then I think a fair bit of the enjoyment to be had will not, actually, be had by you. It’s a side story to the franchise, and it expects you to know the franchise going in. The most egregious example is that all of the foreshadowing leading up to the movie’s big reveal with be entirely lost on any viewers that haven’t done their homework in advance.
But that being said, let’s dive into the plot of the movie! Let’s look at some fantastic beasts and see where we find them! (Warning: there will be spoilers ahead. Major ones will be whited-out so you have to highlight them to see, though.)
The movie has 2 side-by-side plots, starting with New Scamander, fresh off the boat from the UK, enchanted suitcase filled with magical creatures in hand as he walks around New York City. Through happenstance, some of his creatures escape, and hijinks ensue as he tries to get one back before it steals all the shiny things (no, really, Nifflers love shiny things). In the mayhem, he accidentally switches his suitcase with that of a Muggle — excuse me, a no-maj; we’re in America now — and with the rather unwilling help of disgraced magic law enforcement, he has to get it back. Now, magical and non-magical people are utterly forbidden from interacting in America, apparently, so this guy who now has Newt’s suitcase, well, he’s in a lot of danger after he discovers that the world is not as devoid of magic as people would have him believe, but after developing a friendship with Newt (and a crush on a witch), he ends up helping Newt recover the remainder of his missing creatures.
The 2nd of the movie’s plots, and by far the more interesting one, involves a group known as Second Salem, who claims that witches are among us and that they must be wiped out. It’s practically a cult, led by a woman who seems to take in children and raise them to violently hate witches and magic. But one of the older kids in the group, Credence, is working with America’s magical community, trying to uncover the identity of a strong magic child whose suppressed power is getting loose and causing damage and terror around the city. Not only that, but Graves, the man that Credence reports to, promises Credence a place within the magical community once his task is complete.
I’m simplifying the plots a bit here, but for the most part, that gives you a decent idea of what stories the movie is trying to tell without getting into some of the more complex details.
As the movie goes on, the story shifts more from Newt trying to get his beasts back and focuses on the darker and more tense plot of cultish abuse and repressed power run amok. Which is where part of my problem with the movie arises. While it was great to occasionally step away from the darker themes in the movie and have a couple of more lighthearted moments, the whole subplot with New trying to get his magical creatures back made the overall story feel very loose in the first half of the movie. The Niffler chase scene, I can understand. The bit with the Occamy I can even understand, because it’s large enough to cause serious destruction and I can get wanting to rule that out as a possible cause of the dark magic roaming around New York City. But there were other scenes that felt like nothing so much as an excuse to try a little humour and to pad out the film’s runtime while showing off some CGI effects.
And to be fair, the CGI was great. The visuals on the magical creatures was awesome, and I kind of want to live inside Newt’s suitcase. It was a great chance for long-time fans of the series to see some of their favourite creatures come to glorious life, and I’m on board with that. But it led to me feeling like the plot could have been far tighter, and more than once I hoped for the movie to speed along a little bit so that we could get to what I thought was a far more interesting aspect of the story.
Especially once you get deeper into that plot. Turns out that when a witch or wizard suppresses their powers, it can turn dark and be unleashed as a violent force, which is called an Obscurus. That’s the force that’s been ruining New York buildings and cause chaos before Newt even arrived. It’s was a fascinating look at what uncontrolled fear and repression can do, taking a very real-world psychiatric issue and turning it into something physical, something to be seen and felt, as Rowling once did with depression and Dementors. That people in the know are sure the wizard or witch who produced the Obscurus is somewhere within the Second Salem cult just lends an even greater dose of pity to the problem; this person clearly hid themselves because they were taught, brutally, that magic is evil and people who do magic are terrible and should be obliterated, and who wouldn’t hide their true self under that kind of onslaught, even to the point of convincing themselves that they had no magic to begin with? I adored this aspect of the plot, because it said so much about repression and danger and self-expression while still staying entertaining and full of action that makes for good viewing on the big screen. It was a great melding of various elements, and that’s why I wish more of the movie had focused on this.
As it was, we were given our intro to this in dribbles in the beginning, hints that got overshadowed by Newt’s personal quest, and only after Newt’s quest is finished to we really jump into the story that could have and probably should have been the driving force behind the bulk of the movie, not just the second half of it.
As for the casting, I’ve got to say, the characters were played incredibly well. I can’t say they were true to any characters established in the booms, because none of them were actually in any books before this. But they were still great characters. Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt Scamander was great, managing to create a very awkward character who has his passions and interests and knows that other people find them uninteresting but doesn’t let that stop him. Dan Fogler playing Jacob, the man who finds himself suddenly surrounded by supposedly-impossible magic, does a good job of playing the everyman who finds out something fantastical; the right mix of shock and surprise and still trucking along with life because what else can you do? He’s enamoured of the magical world but not repulsed by it. And holy crap, Ezra Miller playing Credence was just… If you want to see an example of how to play someone who is painfully shy, neglected, afraid of himself and the world around him, then look at this performance. You could really feel what the character was experiencing, the way his eyes wouldn’t quite meet another character’s. the resigned way we walked through life, or handed his own belt over to an abusive cult leader in order to be beaten by it…
So here’s where I’m going to talk about the part that I really didn’t like about the movie, and it contains white-out spoilers, so be warned: Graves, the man that has been using Credence to find the source of the Obscurus, the man who seems to think that the ends justify the means, the one who is sick of wizards having to keep themselves secret from non-magical people, is revealed to be Gellert Grindlewald in disguise. And this, to me, was a huge weakness in the movie’s storytelling. It wasn’t enough that somebody could be a bad guy, they had to be the bad guy. It seemed so simplistic when you compare it to a lot of other messages about such things in Rowling’s books. Remember the great line about how the world isn’t split into heroes and Death Eaters? So it wasn’t enough that Graves by an actual person who was ruthless in his pursuit of the Obscurus, hoping to possibly harness its power to defeat Grindlewald’s forces in Europe, stepping over a child’s welfare to do it. No, he had to be the big bad himself, disguised as someone else, because apparently nobody could have those views other than someone we already know to basically be wizard-Hitler.
This brings me back to what I mentioned about needing to do your homework before seeing this movie, though. The movie does admittedly open with some quick clips of newspaper articles talking about the atrocities Grindlewald is committing, and his name is dropped a couple of times through the movie as a reference to him being a bad guy, but the movie itself gives you precious little context for what that really means, who he really is. You don’t know that he’s basically wizard-Hitler. You don’t know that he was the most powerful Dark wizard until Voldemort came along. You don’t really get a sense of what he has to do with anything, until it’s revealed to all be about him. Fans who have read the books and watched the movies will get why this is important, but for those who haven’t, who are maybe just seeing this movie because people say it’s good, are not actually going to get the full effect of this reveal. Most of the movie’s watchers aren’t likely to pick up on this, because they already know his importance. Anyone else? Zoom, it goes, right over their heads.
It’s one thing to make a movie to appeal to fans. It’s another to make a movie with storytelling that only fans will appreciate, because the fans can fill in the faulty storytelling with their advance knowledge. This is a problem I had with the original Harry Potter movies as they went on. The stories got so complex that much of the actual story had to get cut out of the movie in order to reach the end without having a 5+ hour film to sit through. And so few people even noticed because they already knew what the blanks were filled in with beforehand. The 3rd and 6th movies were particularly terrible for this, for reasons I can and have gone on at length about.
I won’t spend too long discussing plot holes, though there were a few. Mostly in the form of unanswered questions and moments where you have to suspend disbelief a little too much. Why didn’t Tina say, “Oh hey, you’re blaming me for not telling you info that I tried to tell you the other day but you kicked me out?” How does the potion at the end affect anyone who wasn’t outside or conveniently in the shower when it was rained down on the city to help them all forget what happened? Unanswered nitpicky questions, over issues that make for great visuals and typical movie tropes, but these things are nitpicky, and they don’t ruin the movie. Just things for fans to debate in the future, probably, and I’m okay with that. No movie is perfect.
Despite having a couple of large problems with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I still have to say that I did, in fact, enjoy the movie. The visuals were great, and I, like many, loved seeing many of the magic creatures from the Harry Potter universe come to life. It was a fun movie, with a dark plot that tackled some hard issues, plenty to discuss between fans, and the acting was impressive. As I said, it wasn’t perfect, but most of those imperfections come to light only when you really look below the surface; without doing that, it can still be enjoyed and appreciated. It’s worth seeing, doubly so if you’re already a fan of the franchise, and I’m interested to see the story continue in future installments.