Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
By Ben Gruchow
November 21, 2016

The future of cosplay is now.

There are the beginnings of something great here. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - which can be considered in relation to the Harry Potter series as a spinoff, a prequel, or both - gives us a protagonist with more agency than its parent series initially awarded its central figure, and a stable of supporting characters that mostly register as eccentric and intriguing. Its vision of a twenties-era New York mixed with the series’ approach to magic is sure-footed and seemingly infinite in its expandability. And it expresses potent themes about fear and its explosive repercussions.

It is not a film to spark much passion, and it fumbles the energy to really coil its main plot into meaningful cohesion with its subplots in the movie’s back half. I find myself consciously giving it credit as a work of cinema rather than being innately and emotionally invested in it. But this is not surprising, and I stop short of labeling it as a liability or shortcoming; certainly, J.K. Rowling (author of the fictional world and of this film’s screenplay) has developed as a storyteller since 1997, and this is a bolder and more confident piece of work than the first or second Harry Potter film was. Time, and box office, will tell whether it ends up surpassing the later films in that series.

Fantastic Beasts is connected to the Potter-verse both tangentially and substantially; it takes place in the same continuity, but roughly 50 years or so before the players in the larger story begin to assert themselves. We’re introduced right away to the movie’s protagonist and greatest asset, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he arrives in New York with a strange suitcase, under mysterious circumstances. He’s quickly intercepted by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror with the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, and it’s here that we rapidly delve into acronyms and character occupations and naming conventions that leave utterly in the dark anyone not familiar with this universe.

Suffice to say that there is a magical bureaucracy in New York existing right alongside the regular bureaucracy, working to conceal the existence of witches and wizards from the view of regular people (Muggles in the original series, No-Maj’s here - like most comparisons between American and British slang, this universe finds the stuff from our side of the pond distinctly less elegant and pleasing to say or write).

We find out that Newt’s suitcase contains a collection of magical creatures; his goal in keeping them is not profit or experimentation, but study; his desire is for people to understand these creatures and to give them more consideration than threat or prey. Complicating this goal is the presence of what appears to be a singularly malevolent creature in New York already; termed the Obscurus, this is a shapeless, formless mass of uncontrolled energy and destruction that leaves behind shattered roads and buildings (Curiously, these buildings all appear to be empty beforehand, and the Obscurus shows itself to be rather good at selectively targeting its victims).

The source of the Obscurus eventually ties in with Newt’s presence in New York, and with a traumatic incident in his past. This is a link referred to rather than explored, and I assume sequels will fill in more of the blanks regarding the character’s past. In the meantime, he’s teamed up in short order with Tina, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, also of the alternative music act A Fine Frenzy, and proving herself a natural here), and aspiring bakery owner Jacob (Dan Fogler). Through an early encounter at a bank, Jacob ends up with Newt’s suitcase, and most of the creatures inside escape into the city. The bulk of the movie thus follows them getting the creatures back into the suitcase and identifying the Obscurus, while evading the punitive arms of the aforementioned bureaucracy (the Magical Congress of the United States, which even as a conservative and risk-averse regime still seems so blessedly more functional than the Non-Magical Congress of the United States that it just about qualifies the film as fantasy all on its own).

One thing is radically apparent from the first few minutes: director David Yates invested himself far more with this film than he did with his other 2016 effort, June’s The Legend of Tarzan (this is not, on its own, a sizzling endorsement; Tarzan looked like hot garbage about as often as it looked passable). Here, with a similar budget, Yates gives us a version of New York slightly skewed toward the fantastic, just as the Potter films skewed Britain in the same way. This is a fully-realized fantasy world, albeit one with even more sobering politics flowing beneath its surface. Upon being questioned by Tina early in the film how familiar he is with American regulations on magic, Newt answers that he knows enough to know how backward the new country is in comparison to Britain.

America is still stuck at the persecution stage when it comes to witchcraft, and even within the magical world there are heavy restrictions on interactions and relationships between magical and nonmagical individuals. This gives the movie’s unexpected romance an extra layer of sadness and poignancy, and the final scenes in that regard are genuinely affecting and sweet. Other scenes are more comic, mostly the ones involving the creatures themselves; the rhino-like Erumpet is a triumph of expressiveness through design and movement. And the Niffler, a platypus-like little creature with an obsessive desire for shiny objects, completely packs the movie up and runs off with it anytime it appears onscreen.

Yates handles this material with care and respect, and it lets us give him a little bit of leeway when it comes to addressing the matter of the Obscurus, and the member of the Magical Congress involved in bringing about the movie’s final chain of events. We are given the skeleton of motivation for Newt and co. in how they approach these set pieces, and there is a powerful blend of painful imagery and sympathetic wording toward the end that works entirely on its own terms. Still, this particular storyline never exactly finds the right rhythm to land on, and it works mostly by virtue of solid work by the cast: by Waterston, by Ezra Miller as a troubled orphan, and by Redmayne.

This incarnation of Newt Scamander is a more impressive thing than it might seem; the screenplay by Rowling gives his dialogue the proper twist toward the absurd that she likes to employ in all of her Potter-based work, but it’s to the credit of the actor that we find the rest of the components in making Newt a protagonist that constantly straddles the line between endearing and madman: the awkward and tentative gait, the subtle inflection he gives to his lines, and the tendency of his eyes to dart around and his face to assume an expression that half-suggests there’s a joke about to land that only he knows about. Redmayne’s Scamander is the biggest strength of the film.

It is perhaps the greatest weakness of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that there is little to no consideration given for newcomers to this storytelling world; I mentioned before about how lost you’d be if you walked into the auditorium without having read or seen any of the prior source material, and perhaps the film should be criticized on those grounds in a vacuum. But the movie is at least gentle and good-natured about its many convolutions of the wizarding world. And we live in a time of fan-service and nostalgia and Member Berries; if I don’t care much for the overall form, it is nice to see as lively and organic an example as we see here. It closes on a promising note, and I’m truly looking forward to what happens next; that’s about as ringing a recommendation as you can find in this genre.