Film Score: 1.5 out of 5 (Poor)
Newt Scaramander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard and expert of magical creatures, who has arrived in New York and is bound for Arizona. Through accident and misfortune, Newt plunges into a conspiracy between good and evil. Fantastic Beasts, a prequel to the Harry Potter series, attempts to emulate the original story’s grandiose narrative of good versus evil.
The result is a stunted tale full of omissions which would confuse even ardent Harry Potter fans and will bore younger children attending the film. Unlike the original Harry Potter series, which gradually became darker as the story progressed and its target audience aged, Fantastic Beasts consists of schizophrenic extremes. The film veers from lighted-hearted magic tricks to the darkness of a Lemony Snicket novel but lacks the black humour. One scene was disturbingly reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and would have deeply unsettled me as child.
The film lacks structure, resembling a garbled first draft of a script repeatedly punctured by holes. The opening scene is not a scene at all, but a barrage of news headlines concerning the actions of a dark wizard who has left a bloody trail from Europe to America. These articles are impossible to read as they flit by so quickly before the camera cuts to Newt Scaramander arriving in New York.
The cut between the newspapers and Newt embodies a recurring flaw throughout Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Many key elements of the plot’s context and the characters involved are hinted at, only to be partially resolved through glimpses at indirect information at best. I felt that this was an attempt to add complexity to entertain parents who will be more attentive than their children during the screening. However, so much occurs during the film, that no real time is afforded to pay attention to the little details which would have been better suited in a slow-paced thriller. All the outstanding questions about the villain, America’s magic society,and more are disregarded in the film’s final act.
The film’s denial of answers to many of the questions that it raises is a clear attempt to entice viewers into the following part of this new story arc. Yet the film’s conclusion feels cheap, gutted of any exciting revelation or premonition, retreating into the romance angle which is commonplace in blockbusters. Fantastic Beasts is the producing and screen writing debut of J.K.Rowling. It is clear throughout the film that Rowling still writes like a writer. Many aspects of the plot are left to the viewer’s inference, as though they were reading a novel.
The plot’s romance element falters. Once Newt pairs up with comedic relief, and muggle, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the film matches them with the magical Goldstein sisters, Tina and Queenie. The pairing is an arranged marriage gone wrong, Newt and Tina simply do not work together. There is no sentiment of attraction between the pair, interacting with each other for the bulk of the film like individuals who have been forced to work together. Then suddenly, near the end of the film, we are supposed to believe that they have developed feelings for one another.
Queenie and Jacob, both being more comedic characters, do work together. However, the relationship between Newt and Tina is glaringly artificial, making the overall romance element unwarranted and causing the plot to become disjointed, clashing with the film’s darker overtones and dragging out the end of the film. Fantastic Beasts would be vastly better if it had focused on Newt and Jacob. The partnership between the pair is reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, with Newt’s introverted and awkward persona mingling with Jacob’s warmth and natural comedy.
The acting is varied. Redmayne and Fogler perfectly fit the role of Newt and Jacob. I hope both characters return as the principal protagonists in the next film of this new franchise. Colin Farrell, who has been given the thankless task of being a very one-dimensional villain, still portrays the character with a convincing ruthlessness that does not feel cheap. Ezra Miller brings a sense of brooding to Credence, the adopted and abused son of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), the leader of the anti-wizard organisation, the New Salem Philanthropic Society.
However Tina Goldstein is an unlikable character. Portrayed by Katherine Waterson, Tina is completely unsympathetic and acts in an illogical manner. She alternates between breaking the rules to following them, then balks at the consequences of enforcing the very rules which she had just broken beforehand. Due to the amount of screen time given to Tina, the character drags down the rest of the film.
Initially, I thought that Tina’s flaws solely rested upon how the character had been written. However, Katherine Waterston delivers the same portrayal for Tina as when she played the love-interest, Fay, in Inherent Vice. Both Tina and Fay are immature and melodramatic, seeking other people’s help for their problems. Tina, with a different portrayal and better writing, could have been a strong woman facing moral quandaries. Instead, she acts like a childish damsel who changes her persona between government agent to victim when it suits. I hope that Waterston moves beyond this weak character type in the upcoming Alien Covenant, and delivers a stronger performance.
The rest of the cast do perform well especially as many of the characters outside of the two ‘couples’ are essentially side-notes. This is where the plot truly breaks down. We are introduced into this new magical world across the Atlantic, but the world is half formed. Many characters lack basic exposition, devoid of any history where their motivations unknown and their actions are feigned, particularly in regards to the President of the American magical community in the final act.
I hope that the next film within the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ series learns from the errors I have highlighted above. I am doubtful this will occur due to the commercial and critical success of the first film. I probably hold a contrarian view, but the Harry Potter franchise has such a cultural hold in modern society that few are willing to properly critique it.
By Saul Shimmin
Target audience: Younger children, teens, and fans of the Harry Potter films.
For the trailer see below: