Well, this review is about a month late, but I recently watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which, if you don’t know, is a spin-off of the ever-popular and ever-overrated Harry Potter series. Coming in, I really didn’t know what to expect other than that there would be fantastic beasts and, presumably, at least one person finding them in some capacity. I had read the book, but that actually reveals surprisingly little about the movie. There were really only two things I had already known about or relating to the movie prior to watching it: that Alison Sudol was in it, and that the American English word for Muggle is apparently “No-Maj”. Seriously…No-Maj. Let me just take a moment to emphasize that that term not only sounds utterly ridiculous but doesn’t even work in American English phonology because of the way we handle unstressed vowels, as a friend of mine pointed out. (Yes, I hang out with people who are familiar with phonetics and how they are used in certain languages…you mean you don’t? Maybe you need to find better friends.) Furthermore, even if we do accept “No-Maj” as an acceptable bend of phonological constraints and a permissible localism, they also screwed it up in another way in at least one place in the movie where it’s pluralized with just an “s” (i.e., “No-Majs”) instead of “-es” as one normally does when pluralizing English words ending in a “j” sound. It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things, I guess, since it probably won’t come up much; if my life is ever reduced to such a pitiable existence that I decide to write Harry Potter fanfiction in lieu of original stories and decide to write one set in the US, I could probably get away with pretending that that detail doesn’t exist. They’ll always be “Muggles” to me anyway, and I’m not sure J. K. Rowling actually knows how Americans talk. Then again, I guess after the past couple years, should I happen to leave the country for any reason, I’ll be lucky to convince anyone from anywhere else that we are even capable of speaking in complete, coherent sentences.
Anyway…the movie. (Sentence fragments.) First of all, I should mention that there will be spoilers, so if that bothers you, it would be a good idea to stop here. Second, I should also mention that it is the same as the book basically in name only; the only commonality between them is that there are magical creatures involved. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, considering that the book was written in the style of what was basically an in-universe reference guide, so it would have been hard to create a completely verbatim adaptation of the original version for the same reason that it would be hard to make a movie out of a volume of the encyclopedia. With this addition of an actual plot, we follow Newt Scamander (the writer of the original book within the Harry Potter universe) as he makes a trip from the UK to the US with a suitcase full of magical creatures of many kinds. Yes, a suitcase that acts as an entire nature preserve in its own right. It’s magic, okay? Naturally, once he gets to New York City (it’s always New York City, at least when it’s not a nameless small town), some of the creatures escape into the city, mainly as a result of accidentally switching suitcases with a local aspiring baker, and he has to track them down with the help of him, an agent originally sent to investigate the trouble, and her flirtatious sister. Meanwhile, there’s some sort of invisible monster that keeps destroying things that has nothing to do with Newt, which they also have to figure out about and stop; there is a group of people opposed to witchcraft who actually aren’t aware of the magical world and don’t get in the way that much but mostly just lurk in the background acting like a bunch of abusive fundamentalists (which certainly doesn’t resemble anything we’ve encountered in reality…); and there’s a plot point about the rise of a dark wizard named Grindelwald (who was mentioned in the main Harry Potter series once or twice early on and later in the last book) that turns out to be important later.
The characters were decent enough, I guess. Newt, Tina, and Jacob were all pretty likable (at least, once Tina warmed up a bit). Queenie is one of those character archetypes that tend to give me a bad first impression, but I warmed up to her as the movie progressed. I might be biased because the thing I found the most noteworthy about her was being played by Alison Sudol, who has some sentimental value for me because she’s one of the few famous people whom I’ve actually met in person. I may even have a bit of a celebrity squish on her (a squish is a platonic crush, for anyone who doesn’t know). She also probably has the nicest smile of anyone I know of in the entertainment industry (though I can think of one acquaintance from school who could probably stand on equal footing with her in that respect).
The supporting cast did seem a bit weaker, though, especially in terms of accomplishments. The Magical Congress was exactly as competent as one would expect from people in positions of power in these stories, which is to say that if they were all locked in a cryogenic chamber on the surface of Mars, they would actually be more useful than they were as it stands, because then at least they’d be out of the way instead of actively obstructing our intrepid protagonists at every opportunity. That president lady in particular (Seraphina Picquery, her name was) honestly seemed like the most bloodthirsty character in the movie overall. For that matter, that execution method was actually kind of creepy…I mean, extracting a person’s memory from the past and showing it to them to make them want to kill themselves…really, MACUSA? Really? I guess it’s at least a more peaceful death than a lot of things would be, but it’s still very unsettling. It really does not help that they were willing to execute the main characters for what seemed like very minor crimes in comparison to the severity of the punishment, and without even hearing their side of the story either. (Also, shouldn’t there be international laws protecting a person from suffering such a punishment by another country’s government?) And since Newt is presumably the only one who knows enough about the magical creatures to be able to safely capture them all…yeah, I see no possible way that getting rid of him could have ended poorly. Nope. Had the execution actually gone through, any continued magical beast-induced loss of property or life afterward would have been 100% their fault.
They also never gave the heroes any recompense for the way they treated them. (Tina’s promotion doesn’t really count.) No transfer of power, no new helpful organizations, not so much as a “sorry we tried to freaking murder you“. No, even when the ostensible climax comes, they get in one last “screw you” moment when the protagonists are trying to talk the guy with the crazed shadow spirit thing (the Obscurus) down, and then they come in and just blast him to bits instead, rendering Credence’s entire plotline essentially moot (aside from making a lot of building insurance companies very displeased, I suppose). Honestly, I hated Seraphina more than the actual villain of the movie. He might have been genuinely evil, and I’m sure he’ll be important in the sequels, but he really only showed up for the final battle (unmasked, anyway), while she was present throughout the story and caused far more actual harm to the heroes despite it being completely in her power to actually help them in a way that would benefit everyone. (On a side note, I find it hard to believe that they’d have a black woman as a political leader in the 1920s, and I’m not being racist or sexist, just emphasizing that people in general were racist and sexist in those days. Also homophobic, transphobic, ableist, religiously oppressive, culturally insensitive, and if there are any other mainstream forms of xenophobia, they probably had those going on too. It would be one thing if the wizards and witches had been shown to be more open-minded than non-magical folk, but both the movie and the books showed that they quite clearly aren’t.) Really, the entire magical government seemed to be composed of idiots (again, this is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any real people living or dead is entirely coincidental); while they did actually show some sense at the very end of the movie, it did little to make up for them acting like utter blockheads for the first 96% of it. The whole “person in position of power doesn’t believe unlikely warning until it’s too late/things have become much worse” is a tired trope for sure; I get that stories usually need to have some form of conflict and drama, and having a high-rank person exert their authority to solve things early would undermine the plot structure, but…come on, writers, you can still have meaningful conflict without needing to make every authority figure have their head so far up their butt that they could see out their bellybutton if they wore X-ray glasses.
While we’re still on the subject of characters, there’s one other point I’d like to address: Whatever happened to the little girl? The one who was hiding the wand under her bed. I get that she was being oppressed by the crazy cultist woman, and when she tried to go too far, the Obscurus killed her, but then…that was it. She never showed up at all after that. Did she ever get reintroduced into society? Was she actually a witch? Did she ever find out what happened to Credence? I suppose it’s one plot thread that may or may not be continued in the sequels.
This is one of those movies where I feel like one watches it more for the scene-by-scene moments than for the overarching storyline. When taken as a whole, it actually feels a bit disconnected (see below).
Characters: Good to forgettable
I thought the main characters, at least, were good. They each had their own distinct quirks, mannerisms, and interests; they were likable; and their interaction felt pretty natural. I’ve already grumbled at length about the government people. (And in the grand scheme of things, they weren’t even that bad; the Harry Potter series loves its jerks and its psychos, so characters who are merely dangerously incompetent are barely a blip on the radar.) The gangster goblin was basically just a one-scene slimeball. There actually isn’t much to say about the other side characters; none of them got enough screen time for us to learn much about them, with the possible exceptions of Credence, the guy who turned out to be the bad guy in disguise, and maybe the leader of the anti-witchcraft group. And even then, we only really found out one main thing about them (“tormented soul lashing out at everything”, “do racist villainous things”, and “rawr, I R wicked fundie”, respectively).
I think the special effects and CGI here deserve a mention. A lot of fantasy movies that contain magical creatures don’t make them look very good (including the main-series Harry Potter movies…ever seen the merpeople in Goblet of Fire? One of the few things I remember about that movie is how awful those looked…), but they actually did a pretty decent job with this one. The creatures, for the most part, looked relatively realistic. The magic spells and such weren’t half bad either, though I’ll admit the only notable one of those that I can remember off the top of my head is when Queenie assembles a pastry in mid-air.
Again, I can’t immediately recall any particularly noteworthy conversations, but the dialogue at least seemed natural? And as I said before, it worked all right with the character interaction.
Positives: Likable main characters, pretty decent CGI/special effects, and a good balance of adventure, downtime, and worldbuilding, if you ask me.
Negatives: I feel like this movie’s biggest problem was trying to juggle too many plotlines. At the very least, there was the main one with Newt trying to recapture the escaped magical creatures, which tied into Tina’s and Jacob’s worlds (Tina because of her history in magical law enforcement, Jacob because of a chance meeting that ended up dragging him into trouble); there was the underlying threat of Grindelwald; there was the whole thing with the New Salem Philanthropic Society and the little girl; and there was the Obscurial, which also kind of ties into both Grindelwald’s story and the society’s. I guess they could certainly have done a worse job connecting them all, though. Also, the American English word for “Muggle” is freaking “No-Maj”.
Final score: 6
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a pretty decent movie. It had some good moments and some not-so-good ones, and it brought in some interesting new developments as well as some that I could do without (such as the fact that the American English word for “Muggle” is “No-Maj”), but I enjoyed it overall. From what I’ve heard, they’re actually planning as many as four sequels to it, which seems weird to me, and I’m worried that the sequels will push all the magical creatures to the side in favor of more of Grindelwald’s story. Still, though, I actually liked this movie substantially more than the actual Harry Potter movies, for what it’s worth.