Here’s my history with the Potterverse. I read all the books and I’ve seen all the movies. I’d consider myself a fan but I’m also very aware of the franchise’s shortcomings. It’s not perfect but it’s a fascinating world. So now we’re able to revisit this world, in the American 1920s. What began as a small reference to this book blossomed into what it is now (intended to be) a five film series. I’ll hope to answer two questions. 1.) Will Harry Potter fans enjoy this? And 2.) Is this a good movie in general?
In the Harry Potter films, we’ve already explored the life of muggles and wizards and all that, focused on the British side of things. Now, we dive into the American side, re-learning how the government works, how no-majs are treated (those without magic), and some setup for the events that will eventually take place in modern day. Since it’s the 1920s, don’t expect to see Harry or Hermione or anyone recognizable.
Our movie opens with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he enters the United States. He carries with him a suitcase, filled with magical monsters and creatures. These creatures start to escape from the chest, meaning that Newt has to track down and catch them. He crosses paths with two American wizards (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) and one no-maj that gets caught up in all this (Dan Fogler). There’s also an auror (like a wizard police officer, kind of) who is weaving in and out of this story, played by Colin Farrell.
We also have a side story, involving a boy named Credence (Ezra Miller), who is in a dysfunctional family of orphans and street-rats, that also hate wizards.
It’s (no pun intended) fantastic to revisit this world. The music hits and everything floods back to you. It’s very cool to learn about this new corner of the world and how politics work and what it’s like. It’s fascinating both because of the new place but also the new time, making this film feel very different than the others. Whether that is good or bad, it’s debatable.
Carrying this movie is Eddie Redmayne, who has delivered outstanding performances (The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl) and also horrifying performances (Jupiter Ascending). Here, he’s more good than bad. He’s odd and potentially alienating or annoying (which he acknowledges in the film) but it works. You’re at least rooting for him, even if you find him a bit annoying.
The standout for me, and this might be divisive, was Dan Fogler, as the no-maj named Jacob Kowalski. He’s a down on his luck baker who inadvertently gets caught up in this mess. He serves as the comedic relief most of the time, but also the vital role of our surrogate. This means when they need to explain something to us, the audience, they explain it to Kowalski. “Here’s how this works…” and now we know. He also serves as the heart of the movie, in the film’s closure. I legitimately teared up during the last act because of his character and that arc.
I also want to applaud the creature design (though not the visual effects themselves). The design was spot-on. I’d love to see the sketches of how they came up with these creatures, which are indeed fantastic. The problem is in the execution, that some of these effects felt really sub-par, even compared to other Harry Potter films. Nothing in this movie compares to the hippogriff Buckbeak in The Prisoner of Azkaban, which is a shame considering how much time has passed.
What doesn’t work?
Unfortunately quite a few things, leaving me very conflicted and disappointed. I wanted this movie to be great but maybe my high expectations affected my experience.
The biggest problem is pacing. There’s an entire plot involving Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller that, while it did come into play in the main storyline, felt unnecessary. Those scenes were also overly confusing and somewhat boring, to be honest. I always wanted to get back to the fantastic beasts. I’m a fan and I didn’t quite understand what was happening, I can only imagine the confusion that casual fans might have.
But even the action sequences and moments with these incredible creatures… felt boring. It lacked the adventure that the original films had, the suspense and intensity. I found myself staring blankly at the screen during the film’s epic climax. I wasn’t enthralled. This isn’t the first movie this year to feel this way. The climax almost reminded me of Suicide Squad and how lifeless that climax felt. I wanted heart and I didn’t feel anything.
And it doesn’t help the visual effects weren’t consistent. Newt would be a petting an animal and all I could see was him in a soundstage petting a prop that they would eventually replace with a CGI creature. It felt inauthentic. And that bums me out, since it’s literally the fantastic beasts that should’ve carried this movie.
In general, the fantastic beasts actually felt like an afterthought. Newt capturing them was just a time-waster, when you realize the actual plot of the movie and how little any of that mattered. His reason for even visiting the U.S. was dismissed in one line. This all set up for other movies, movies that may not even feature Newt Scamander (I wouldn’t be surprised). The focus is on setting up future movies, where the focus should have been making this a great movie.
This movie isn’t what I wanted it to be. They sacrificed making a solid movie in turn for setting up the next four movies to come. The actual fantastic beasts are not only basically irrelevant to the story but also don’t look stellar, though their designs are very cool. The movie is a bit slow, oddly paced and running a bit too long, focusing on a side story that lacks any sort of energy. Redmayne delivers a solid performance but the standout was Dan Fogler, able to give this movie some much-needed energy and heart. Die-hard fans of the franchise may enjoy being able to revisit this world, but I think die-hard fans also deserved a better film.