Five years ago, the world wept when they thought that the magical world of Harry Potter’s days on the big screen were over. However, veteran-Potter director David Yates and debut screenwriter J.K. Rowling have dusted off the Hogwarts history books to bring us into new, but also very familiar territories.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has been adapted from a fake textbook intended for first year Hogwarts students written by J.K. Rowling for charity all the way back in 2001. The film tells the story of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the author of said textbook, and his misadventures in 1920s New York. When magical beasts escape from Newt’s suitcase, he must team up with a quirky cast of supporting characters to get them all back, all the while dark forces seem to be growing in the shadows.
Allow me to preface this review by saying that fans of the Harry Potter franchise will no doubt be enchanted by the first of this new prequel series. There is a familiarity and a child-like playfulness to proceedings that will whet the appetite of Potter-heads. As someone who appreciated the original series but was never swept up in the fandom craze, my experience of Fantastic Beasts was not one coloured through rose tinted glasses; the film, for which I had fairly mediocre expectations, ultimately disappoints.
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to admire on display here. Rowling once again proves to be one of the most imaginative minds writing today. The world she created, and has now expanded significantly by changing before the location and the era, is incredibly immersive and definitely feels lived in. But with all this world building and set-up for a further four sequels, the exposition comes off very heavy handed and drags the pace to halt in certain scenes.
Which brings me onto my first major criticism of Fantastic Beasts: This is Rowling’s first screenplay and you can certainly tell. As well as the heavy reliance on uneven exposition, the dialogue comes off as awkward and the comedy doesn’t always land. There are also a lot of convenient resolutions to seemingly huge problems that seem to come out of the blue. One thing the film has in its favour is that the screenplay has no narrative source material meaning that reveals should surprise all of the audience, not just non-book readers. Wrong: Fantastic Beasts not so subtly implies one thing and then tries to pull the rug out from under your feet, but these twists smack more of predictable than shocking.
Furthermore, the titular beasts offer fairly little to the film as a whole besides whimsical set pieces to keep everything child friendly. It’s quite clear that, like the first two Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts is a film that is largely targeted to a younger audience. However the film’s tone is all over the place. David Yates, who has directed every film in the franchise since Order of the Phoenix, is naturally adept at handling a darker tone, which this film has in some elements. But this film feels like a tonal amalgamation of the first two Potter films and the last two, and they don’t mesh well at all. The editing and the resulting flip-flop between cheerful and serious make scene changes jarring.
Even my sceptical view of Yates’ direction has to concede that he handles action sequences well, a feat which is particularly difficult when incorporating a lot of CGI. They may not add much to the narrative but they are exciting and distract from some of the plot holes. The special effects in these scenes are nothing short of spectacular. Sadly in the quieter, emotional moment, some of the CGI for the creatures is substandard and pulls the audience out of the scene; they felt far more tangible in the original series. With last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens putting a great emphasis on practical effects, excessive dependence on CGI is disappointing.
I would be remiss not to mention the sweet if paper thin characters. All of the main characters are charming and each performance is sufficient. Eddie Redmayne keeps Newt’s various quirks from slipping into the realm of annoyance. But if you’re looking for a character driven story, you aren’t going to get one here. Everyone exits the film in exactly the same way as the entered. Perhaps in the sequels these characters will develop, and hopefully they will, because there appears to be very little beneath the surface for everyone (except a few hints to Newt’s past).
What ultimately fails this film is that it is so preoccupied with trying to set up a host of future sequels that it forgets to make a cohesive film. However there is a lot of potential in Fantastic Beasts, but unfortunately good intentions do not always translate well to screen as evidenced here. Perhaps when viewed as a whole this first outing will be viewed more favourably. As a standalone film, it is objectively the worst showcase of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to date. Poor dialogue and a messy tone means that I will not be revisiting Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them any time soon.