It’s not a very interesting textbook either.
I’m not sure whether to judge this new Fantastic Beasts project that JK Rowling is helming as a shallow cash grab or because she generally thinks she can exploit her universe for new storytelling, but I can tell you that the first movie definitely tries to do the latter, only to resemble the former quite a bit. Aside from some terms and Grindelwalds’ existence, there’s pretty much no connection to Harry Potter in the beginning of Newt Scamander’s tale, but the same time, there’s no real story to call its own apart from a pre-fabricated plot meant to set up concepts with no real urgency to them. It really annoys me how this style of storytelling has become so pervasive in mainstream blockbusters as of late, emphasizing hitting certain plot beats over actual meaning, and just because it’s not executed as badly as a visual novel anime or The Phantom Menace, that means audiences will eat it up. This sort of style is fundamentally flawed guys. All it can do is raise shit into mediocrity, which has been argued to be worse by yours truly.
I’ve read in interviews that Fantastic Beasts is supposed to be about the current political situation, but so little of the story actually focuses on the political aspects (especially compared to the recent alien film, Arrival) for it to properly function that way. The plot is pretty standard “childish wonder meets adult world” stuff. While visiting New York for reasons I’m not quite clear on, our hero Newt accidentally unleashes a bunch of magical beasts that he carries in his dimensional suitcase on the city, and – with the help of a few quirky characters – must get them back whilst dealing with the dark side of the wizarding community in the process. And while I have no problem with using substance I’d expect from an episode of the Care Bears to gently ease people into the plot of a political thriller, the movie spends so much time setting things up that we don’t even start making progress with the former until an hour in, meaning there’s little time for the latter to get its own time to shine. The majority of this ridiculously long movie is just watching the characters engage in wizard slapstick, setting up relationships, admiring the CG beasts, and noticing how empty the streets of New York can be at night. It’s kind of like The Wind Rises, except regardless of whether you hate the movie or not, you can’t deny that the movie was about something underneath its sluggishness: a young aircraft designer trying to realize his dreams despite the fact that the results of achieving them will cause many deaths in the future, the same way most people respect Albert Einstein despite how he was responsible for the atomic bomb.
Characters themselves are pretty standard. Newt is basically your generic wide-eyed nice guy who doesn’t have any personal story except for how he apparently left Hogwarts on bad terms, which we never really learn much about. The main women in this film pretty much exist to be the female counterpoint to the men whilst the antagonistic ones pretty much exist to be the counterpoint to idealism in general. Colin Farrell’s character is pretty much what you’d expect from a Colin Farrell character. And not helping at all is that the actors speak their lines like they’re thieves sneaking into a museum with noise-sensitive alarms, and you don’t get subtitles with theatrical screenings unless you’re in a foreign country and can read Thai.
The only one who shines is Dan Fogler’s character, Jacob Kowalski, because he’s supposed to be the character we’re meant to project ourselves onto by way of having something of an arc: he’s a normal human who wants to get enough money to open a bakery, but on his quest to get money, he ends up accidentally embroiling himself into all this wizarding shit when he realizes that Newt’s suitcase seems alive. It’s actually pretty cute to see him and Newt together, opening up to the idea that magic exists and making sarcastic quips to the more stupid aspects of magical politics, as well as falling in love with a witch who doesn’t know a thing about non-magical people. However, this plotline isn’t enough to save the film on account of it just being one of several on-going threads the movie desperately wants to show the audience, as well as being pretty supplementary in the grand scheme of things – which is ironic because it’s also the only plotline in the movie with an actual conclusion to the point that there’s very little a sequel can do to extend it without it coming off as forced.
Everything else just exists for accomplishing certain plot beats in a very arbitrary way. We learn about why Tina Goldstein is no longer an Auror. We set up a bit of a relationship between Newt and Grindelwald, who looks to be the main antagonist of this series. We get Johnny Depp to cameo because he’s going to play a major part in the future films. We learn that some witches can read minds and that there are no-Majs hunting down witches and wizards. And none of it is grounded on anything more than the Saturday morning cartoon plot of “we gotta get these beasts back” without anything particularly challenging happening to the characters. Even when it seems like the beasts are actually killing people, the movie assures that it’s just a misunderstanding, because that would apparently be too gritty for the kids watching this film. The real threat is pretty poorly built up as well despite having a decent amount of screen time. It’s like it existed solely to provide a final climax and nothing else.
For what it’s worth, Fantastic Beasts’ start doesn’t meander as much as Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit (first film. I haven’t seen the other two), but anyone who tries to use that sort of good-by-comparison method of criticism as a means for praise are stuck in the Stone Age of reviewing things. Especially since no amount of comparisons can change the fact that Fantastic Beasts is nothing more than another setup movie for sequels that may not even deliver, not helped by the fact that we’ve got to wait two years for each one. If you just want to immerse yourself into the world of Harry Potter again, then I guess this movie will do it for you. However, I think that’s an unhealthy attitude for people to have, because it means you support world-building/character-building for the sake of world-building/character-building, never caring about whether or not the creators actually have interesting stories to convey to their audiences, and only indulging in expansions of what is already familiar to you. I want a fucking challenge in whatever story the author intends to give us, regardless if he or she goes back to familiar territory in order to do so.
You know how the new Godzilla movie was mostly just ten minutes of Godzilla wrecking stuff and two hours of the people around him talking about the political ramifications of a giant play-doh monster existing in Japan? That’s what I consider a challenging storyline. The underlying tale told through The Wind Rises is challenging by way of the contrast between hopes and reality. The only challenge Fantastic Beasts can offer is to the audience’s own patience. Maybe the sequels will fix that, but this was not a good start to a film series at all.
- I love ignoring celebrity news. That’s how I avoid the massive hate on Depp over those abuse allegations he recently got stuck with.
- To be fair to Dan Fogler, he’s generally the best part in every crappy movie he’s in, even if that’s a very low bar given how he was in Good Luck Chuck and played an extremely annoying character in it.