Does ‘Fantastic Beasts’ Hold Up Under The Pressure Of ‘Harry Potter’?
It's for Potter diehards and a new generation of fans, but it might not nail the brief for either.
Finally! Another Harry Potter movie! Well, sort of. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to both suffer and benefit because of its links to the Harry Potter universe.
Centred around Newt Scamander (a magical zoologist played by Eddie Redmayne) Fantastic Beasts is our first cinematic return to the Potterverse since The Deathly Hallows Part Two in 2011. There’s no Hogwarts here; instead, this is a series based loosely on a spinoff J.K. Rowling did for charity in 2001, an in-universe textbook written by Scamander himself. Harry, Ron and Hermione aren’t born yet, and we’re not in England anymore. We’re Stateside, in Gatsby-era New York.
But is it any good? Does it (and can it) stack up to the original series? The answer to that question is complicated.
A Case For And Against
One of the major problems is that we actually don’t get any real time with Newt to begin with. We see him arrive in New York, clutching a battered suitcase that sort of acts as the nexus around which the entire film will revolve. Newt is a scruffy young man, finely dusted with the kind of affectations that give Doctor Who obsessives huge emotional boners — facial tics, a funny walk, a stymied ability to interact with other people. This makes sense, to a degree; he spends his life with magical creatures, and as such has become a tad peculiar. But the film skips past fleshing him out and explaining why he is the way he is.
It’s like we’re watching the second film in the series, having jumped ahead of a movie with necessary backstory and exposition. The camera often seems to slowly zoom in on his face as if to convey some loaded meaning, but Rowling (who also wrote the screenplay) never actually did the loading so these moments fire blanks. I still don’t entirely know who Newt is, even after having seen the film.
Thankfully he does, eventually, bond with other humans. There’s Porpentina (Katherine Waterston), a demoted member of the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, her sister Queenie (played by singer Fine Frenzy), and the best character in the entire film by a country mile: Jacob Kowalski, a beleaguered cannery worker played by Dan Fogler. Jacob, and his interactions with Queenie in particular, give the film the spark it so desperately needs to succeed.
Harry Potter was, after all, built on the friendships and rivalries that grow, ebb and flow between classmates. The film realises this about an hour in, winds up the hot backwash of CGI creatures crashing into shit, and finally corrects course by allowing Jacob and Queenie to inject the proceedings with some heart.
This is a damn good call, given that many of the other characters — namely, every single person working at the US ministry, including the minister herself, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), are about as dumb as a box of hair. They ignore vital information, are incapable of listening, and charge in like morons, wands first, wherever they go. I can’t tell whether this is a deliberate turn on the part of J.K. Rowling, who may have been trying to critique law enforcement at the time, or whether it’s just bad writing. Perhaps both. It might be tempting to assume that given our political climate, Fantastic Beasts bureaucracies are cutting parodies, but I’m concerned that maybe, just maybe, Rowling didn’t make enough of an effort with them at all.
Regardless, the villainy here often just feels dull. And it feels that way because, unlike in the books and films we’ve grown up with, we don’t know why they’re acting the way they are, and the film tries its hardest to avoid explaining that.
It’s worth making extra note of the CGI, as I’d wager that almost half of this film is made up of the titular beasts banging into things. I have zero illusions about how much CGI constitutes your average blockbuster nowadays, but my god, the ratio of ‘real’ to ‘not real’ in Fantastic Beasts borders on oppressive. In a film that so desperately needed, and deserved, more meaty scenes between the talented cast where they could, you know, talk and evolve as characters, it’s a crying shame that the narrative was instead repeatedly choked by ‘Oh shit your gollywobblerwhatever is crashing into a zoo to bone down with the animals!’ *Cut to 15-minute chase sequence*
A Matter Of Perspective?
Much of the appeal with Potter was its longstanding connection to young readers. People grew up with the books, and the books — tonally, and in their increasing literary aptitude — grew with us. So, when the series wrapped up (both the books and corresponding films), it was more or less on par with its audience. According to this thinking, Fantastic Beasts should be dark, right? This is also complicated.
Fantastic Beasts starts with a solid hour of goofy chases and big, wet-eyed Jimbly-bofflers (not the actual name, but I’m sure it’s close) blinking goofily at us before biting someone on the backside. The light-hearted slapstick feels like it’s made explicitly for kids; like the series is starting anew for younger fans. But then the next scene takes us to an inky hovel where a boy is handing his adoptive mother a belt so she can whip him senseless. The tonal shift here is jarring at best, and at worst, damaging to the film as a whole.
So who is Fantastic Beasts for? I think it’s for Potter fans and a new generation of yet-to-be fans, though I’m concerned it doesn’t really nail the brief for either. To be clear: this definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it. The film does many things well too.
While we get nowhere near the amount of one-on-one time we need and deserve with Newt, by the end of the film, Redmayne has managed to make the character interesting and likeable. I can’t wait to see what he gets up to in the sequel. Jacob and Queenie are utterly wonderful, and even Porpentina manages to grow into an enjoyable character — maybe not Hermione enjoyable, but still. The soundtrack is superb, the costume and set design are an utter delight, and there’s some genuinely great moments threaded throughout.
And consider this: the first Harry Potter movie was… well. It was a little bit balls, wasn’t it? I mean, emotionally significant balls that we all remember very fondly, but good god, the child acting alone made it cringe-worthy. Now think about how stunning that film series ended up. I’m more than willing to chalk this up to growing pains and pre-book my ticket to the sequel.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is out in cinemas now.
Paul Verhoeven is host of Steam Punks on ABC3, and host of the weekly gaming podcast 28 Plays Later. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven.