Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Last night, I finally got to watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the movie, at my university. Bonus: my birthday was this week, so it counts as a birthday present to myself. A month ago, I read the script, which left me a little rankled. Some of this review will compare what I remember of the script to the movie. After watching this movie, I am glad that I read the script first.
Newt Scamander, who has yet to write a future Hogwarts textbook about fantastic beasts, arrives in 1920s New York to return a Thunderbird to its natural home, which is apparently Arizona. One of his creatures, the Niffler, escapes while he stands in front of a bank that the Second Salem group is spreading hate about witches. As he tries to retrieve it, he bumps into No-Maj/Muggle Jacob Kowalski who is trying to obtain a loan to open a bakery. After the bank denies him a loan, he crosses paths with Newt again, which leads to him learning about the magical world. A former Auror watches them closely.
I am not a historian, but there were historical elements that bothered me. Most of what I know about America in the Twenties comes from high school history classes and my mother whose mother grew up in New York in that era. One: the Roaring Twenties only consists of short hair and speakeasies in this movie. Two: the everyday dress of the women, including witches, included a lot of pants on the part of Tina. My understanding is that it was still very uncommon for women to wear pants. Three: the phrase “in you get” sounds distinctly British (all of the characters sounded British), and I am not sure that that was in use by Americans of the Twenties. In fact, only Jacob had an accent. I expected more diversity in accent and ethnicity in Muggle/No-Maj New York. I expected more formal language among the upper crust of society, anyway, and I did not see this.
The creatures were beautiful animated, and that itself reawoke the Harry Potter magic that I love. Each was uniquely designed with the appropriate personalities. I have my doubts that a Thunderbird would be native to a desert region because it seldom rains in the desert and the Thunderbird – based solely on one Wikipedia article – originates in the mythology of the indigenous tribes of the Midwest and Canada.
Some of the magical theory I remember from the Harry Potter books does not hold well in this movie. For example, there is a moment where two wands connect, similar to the Priori Incantatem effect in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In that book and movie, this occurs only when two wands have identical cores, making them brother wands. Am I to believe that those two characters in Fantastic Beasts have brother wands? Unless a sequel movie states that, I do not see it happening.
My mother, whose knowledge of the universe extends to the movies, the first book and some things I have told her, watched the movie with me, so I was able to find out what is confusing to someone who is not deep into the fandom. You cannot jump into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them without having watched at least the eight Harry Potter movies. Honestly, that probably is not enough. You probably need to read the book series before watching it. Every book, TV or movie series I watch has to allow me to understand, mostly, what is happening without having to read or watch anything that came before it. The worst part of this is that the synopsis on IMDb only tells you that it takes place before Harry Potter was alive; it tells you nothing otherwise about what will be in the movie. I think Jacob Kowalski was supposed to be that way to introduce you to the world if you know nothing about Harry Potter, but he failed to do that.
The only character who develops is Jacob, played by Dan Fogler. He wants to make others happy with his baked goods instead of waste away in his factory job. He finds that he can be extraordinary by the end and shows that he can be a reliable friend when he was isolated at the start of the movie. The rest of the main characters are flat. Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, is a sweet, little thing who is a Sookie-Stackhouse type of Legilimens, a.k.a. mind reader. That is all she is. Nothing else reveals her character. At least her relationship with Jacob is less forced. Newt loves his creatures, but nothing develops him beyond that point. There was potential with him being expelled from Hogwarts, or having a relationship with a Lestrange, or having an war hero for a brother, but none of that was played up enough to show a new side to him. Eddie Redmayne played him well by showing us how sweet the “beasts” are, but it hardly went further than that. Tina, Queenie’s sister, played by Katherine Waterson, maintains the same mournful expression through almost the entire movie, which makes the romance between her and Newt forced. She attacked one of the Second Salem women, became attached to one of the boys, and lost her job over it. None that develops her character for me. The script made the characters feel a little more developed, but the movie producers were unable to achieve that on screen.
The Second Salem people felt more in place in this movie, yet their parts felt unrelated to what was going on in the rest of the movie. Most of that group was creepy with their grey looks and cold behavior. Ezra Miller played the role Credence Barebone well with his hunched-over shoulders and fearful expressions. It was more apparent to me, watching the movie, what his role was, but he was more predictable in his full role in the movie, though it is hard to see it unless you read the script.
There were a few other problems in this movie for me. A lot of buildings blow up, and I hate movies that consist of that. Blowing stuff up does not make up for lack of character and world development. The characters mumble, so it is very easy to mishear or not hear a word at all. There are logical aspects for character behavior and world building that do not line up, which I could fill another post with. One part of the ending did not line up with what I remember happening in the script.
I have loved watching the credits of the Harry Potter films when I saw that they were interesting for the third and fourth movies. I know that changed with different directors, but I thought there could be a revival in this movie. There was, but the only thing interesting was the blue smoke in the background.
I feel like I would not grasp more if I watched the movie a second time. I noticed the political messages again, but they did not beat me as hard as they did in the script. There were some discrepancies with the world and the ending, but the producers executed most of the script well on screen. If you are new to the Harry Potter universe, marathon the movies during a Freeform Harry Potter Weekend if you do not want to read the books. If you had to choose one to own, pick the script.