Short Attention Span Review™
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tells the story of Newt Scamander's arrival and adventures in 1926 New York City. While there he gets mixed up in a struggle with dark forces plotting to wreak havoc in the Wizarding World. Fantastic Beasts departs from the previous source material by having no child characters and possessing extremely dark themes and violence.
This review contains minor spoilers.
Okay, Neal, as the resident Harry Potter nerd, I get to go first this time.
I went into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with much excitement, and I was not disappointed. From the opening notes of Hedwig’s Theme and the Warner Bros. logo that morphed into the Fantastic Beasts main title and logo, I was instantly transported into the Wizarding World. And, yes, I did get a little teary eyed!
It’s important to note that you don’t have to be a Harry Potter fan to enjoy this film as it completely stands on its own. At the beginning of the film, you see a montage of newspaper articles revealing that Gellert Grindelwald has been terrorizing the wizarding world and is currently missing. Harry Potter fans have more backstory on Grindelwald that may make this scene a bit more stress inducing, but general audiences will understand that he is an evil wizard and that’s all you really need to know. My only complaint is that this montage moved too quickly; I look forward to getting this on Blu-ray so I can pause and read each article. Yes, I’m a nerd, this has been established.
The story quickly moves to Newt Scamander entering New York City in 1926. In a story about fantastic beasts, one might assume the film is all CGI, but they actually built New York City streets at Leavesden Studios in England. The sets, costumes, and props create a realistic and engaging backdrop to the story, and I’m sensing we may soon have a 1920s fashion trend as a result.
Neal SaysWhile I have enjoyed some of the Potterverse movies, I can’t say I’m nearly the nerd you are when it comes to the works of J.K. Rowling. I’m more of the Tolkien guy. Those stories were my equivalent when growing up . . . and even as a grown up. That being said I did enjoy Fantastic Beasts, but it clearly didn’t make as much of a connection with me as it did with you.
You mention the beginning sequence of flashing news stories. It made no connection with me, either lore wise or emotionally. I just assumed things weren’t well in the Wizarding World. I have no idea who Gellert Grindelwald is, so the entire opening sequence really didn’t mean much nor did it create any connection with what happens at the end of the film, and presumably sets up the next. And that’s my problem with Fantastic Beasts. If you aren’t steeped in Potterverse lore the movie simply comes across as the adventures of an awkward Newt Scamander in New York City. But it extends even beyond that. This doesn’t feel like a Newt Scamander story, nor does it feel like its name implies. To me Newt feels like a character that just gets caught up in larger sinister plot . . . something he just stumbles into. Fantastic Beasts is not really about Newt. And as far as where to find beasts for all I can tell you find them in his suitcase, and once in awhile they escape and create exciting action sequences.
What may surprise some audience members is that this is not a story designed for kids. Yes, they will enjoy the moments when Newt is caring for his creatures, but the rest of the story is actually fairly dark. We see the leader of the Second Salemers movement beating children, a Senator attacked and killed, and wizards being sentenced to death for breaking the Statue of Secrecy. Now, I’m a Star Trek fan and agree with the Prime Directive, but death seemed a little harsh in this case. Of course, it makes more sense at the end, but you won’t get any spoilers out of me.
Luckily, Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski provides much needed comic relief and is really the heart of this film. He is a No-Maj (non-magical human…a.k.a. Muggle) full of wide-eyed wonder as he experiences the wizarding world for the first time. In fact, he utters the line we all are thinking, “Aww, I wanna be a wizard.” He instantly falls for Queenie Goldstein, played perfectly by Alison Sudol, who reciprocates his affection.
Okay, Neal, I better wind this up and leave you with something to write about. As a fellow Hufflepuff, I hope you were as excited as I was to see a story about the famed Newt Scamander. I enjoyed Eddie Redmayne’s quirky performance, but I do wish he didn’t mumble so much. I also wish that there would have been a little more character development for Newt. Alas, I don’t know how central he is going to be to the rest of the film series, so this may be all we get. Too bad, because I really enjoyed this film and want more.
To all the Harry Potter fans, I’ll leave you with a final Easter egg . . . you will learn something in this film that sheds some light on what happened to Ariana Dumbledore! #micdrop
And that’s another part that diverges from Rowling’s source material. The Harry Potter series is clearly for the young (or young at heart). It’s full of children, growing, learning, awkwardness, and the power of friendship. Fantastic Beasts feels like a movie for adults. The only children in the movie are the aforementioned abused kids at the hands of a disturbed woman. The second half of the movie is extremely dark, filled with violent murder and adult themes. It’s a strange departure for Rowling compared to Harry Potter.
But again, despite all these quibbles I found the movie enjoyable, and I completely agree that Jacob and Queenie stole the movie. Jacob’s sheer joy at the mystery of discovering this whole new world showed on his face every time it was on screen, and Queenie’s affection for Jacob was also apparent. These two characters were the only bright spots in what is altogether a fairly foreboding movie. A movie I was not expecting.