Let me start this review by saying that I highly enjoyed this film. J.K. Rowling has a true gift for creating whimsy and a world full of magic that seems so tangible and reachable. So with that in mind, understand that I enjoyed this film, because a majority of this review will come across negative or overly critical. I feel that it is important to deal with the film’s shortcomings, for I hope the remainder of the series will overcome them to create something on par with the main Harry Potter films. Once again, I am not trying to sound mean in the following paragraphs, because I did truly enjoy the film.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is directed by David Yates and written by the singular J.K. Rowling, starring Eddie Redmayne as the magizooligist Newt Scamander, who travels to 1920s New York City and soon finds himself entangled in a story of mystery and miscommunication. Newt quickly finds trouble as he loses some of the magical creatures he’s bringing to America at the same time that muggles (called no-maj in the States) are learning about and immediately mistrusting the witches and wizards and as a dark violent force terrorizes the city.
There is a lot going on in the film, and like the previous installments, the magic on display and the characters are the best part of the stories. The film has some major pacing issues, but damn, does J.K. Rowling know how to build a world. Her world, even one filled with magic, feels real and grounded because the characters, whether magical or not, feel real and have true personalities. These are characters I want to see more of their lives. From the Second Salem group to Queenie, I wanted more. And then I there were some characters that were empty and very underdeveloped.
Putting it simply, Jon Voight was wasted. He is important for one plot element, but he is not a full fledged character. Maybe he and his sons will come back for sequels, but as of this first film, his character and stories could have easily been cut or should have been rewritten. It is just one moment in an otherwise good film of plotting issues. So many of my complaints comes down to things that are the same as the aspects I love. Essentially, for some world building I love, there are some world building pieces I didn’t enjoy. For characters I really enjoyed, there were others that were forgettable or pointless. For every cute great and truly fantastic beast, there was some creatures with really shoddy CGI.
This film is uneven with some pacing issues. JK Rowling can create great heroes, interesting villains and wonderful worlds, but she has a habit of putting too much in at once. Maybe this is an issue coming down to her transitioning from a novelist to a screenwriter. You can’t fit as much development in a film as a novel. Long form storytelling always is a better option than film to tell a story with many characters. A film can do it, but it is hard. Fantastic Beasts falls into the trappings of an overstuffed film that has too much occurring from the very beginning.
The opening scene whisks newspaper headlines so quickly, I couldn’t catch the important story elements introduced. It is so poorly edited and displayed, I was worried that the rest of the film would follow suit. Then characters are introduced and basically dropped or given no development, like the aforementioned Voight or the Second Salem lot. Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton were amazing in this film, as they always are. But I don’t learn much about Morton’s villain as much as I wanted. In short, she plays a muggle/no-maj who knows of the existence of wizards and witches and wants to educate the world on their existence by proclaiming their “evilness” and preaching their extermination. It’s heavy and fascinating stuff, cut short by underdevelopment. The idea that wizards are dangerous to muggles and they should be killed is a dark theme to explore, but the film never fully embraces it. I wish it did, because this film has some dark aspects that are terrifying.
There is a magic version of the electric chair and it is horrifying. There is child abuse and hints of sexual abuse. The dark force entity, which I won’t spoil here, is essentially a metaphor for repressed sexually and anger and depression. It represents when someone internalizes all of the hate and anger and sadness one feels, and the dangerous explosions of frustration and lashing out that can occur from that repression. This film is worthy of exploring it, but then it forgets the heavy imagery it previously showed and has Eddie Redmayne do a weird mating dance for a magic rhino. Yes it’s weird and odd and unexpected, but it could have been cut to show more of Colin Farrell being magnificent as Graves (and no I won’t talk about Graves too much because it will just make me upset).
So much of the movie could have been improved with perhaps one more rewrite, tightening up certain story beats and adding some scenes expanding motivations and backstories. Then the film could have been great, because so many of this film is rather brilliant. I wish Fogler’s Jacob was the main character, I wish there was more Second Salem, I wish small characters which have big name actors associated with them would have more development, I wish the CG was better. But that’s not the film I saw, not the one I got. But if they make four more films, I hope they learn from this film, because the world presented is more adult and different from the Harry Potter films, and it is one worth exploring.