Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: let the beasts be free
Lainey can’t believe I’m Gryffindor. We had a whole conversation about it—she thinks I should be Ravenclaw-but if you need proof, Lainey is a loud and proud Slytherin, and Gryffindors live to cockblock Slytherins, which will explain my review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I didn’t love. It reminds me of Star Wars: The Force Awakens- great characters, thrilling moments, but yikes on the actual story. Let’s start with the good, though, because there really is so much of it, and what works is totally delightful. First and most importantly, Eddie Redmayne is TERRIFIC as Newt Scamander, who is himself a terrific hero.
Amidst all the superheroes and space wizards, Newt Scamander is an awkward, shy, implied-family-embarrassment who was expelled from school and is traveling the world in what might be some kind of exile, self-imposed or otherwise. He’s no one’s definition of a hero—not articulate, not charismatic, not strapping, and as Redmayne hunches in on himself, not tall. With his curly forelock and Redmayne’s quiet, fumbling delivery, he’s like an escapee from a period romance.
He’s also a tree-hugging environmental preservationist, more interested in protecting his menagerie of fantastic beasts than concerning himself with the wizard politics unfolding around him. This is what makes Newt special—he’s KIND, and QUIET, and his big play to save the tragic antihero is COMPASSION. These are not traits we usually celebrate in superheroes (make no mistake, wand-waving wizards are definitely superheroes). Our Superman is a murderer, and even Captain America, the most moral of our superheroes, is a total hardass. But Newt Scamander is defined by his gentleness and his desire to protect his animals and educate others about them.
The casting across the board is wonderful—Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol are charming as witch sisters Porpentina and Queenie Goldstein, Carmen Ejogo is appropriately majestic as MACUSA President Picquery, Colin Farrell is sexy and creepy as Auror Percival Graves, and Dan Fogler is OUTSTANDING as aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski. (Johnny Depp is in this movie for thirty seconds. He doesn’t count.) Newt, Jacob, “Tina”, and Queenie are wonderful together, and however shaky the story is, the foundation of these four is solid. More adventures with Newt and his New York friends are welcome.
Where Beasts slides sideways is with the plot revolving around Ezra Miller (who is great) as Credence, a super creepy Damian-type (also great). The problem isn’t the character or his specific story, it’s that this character and storyline exist in the same movie where Newt chases his (adorable) Niffler across Manhattan. A movie where Newt does a silly mating dance with a glowy rhinoceros does not also need to contain a bleak storyline about an abusive orphanage matron who whips the closeted wizard in her care. They’re just not compatible.
The whimsical elements of OG Harry Potter work because they come with cute kids attached, and not for nothing, as those kids age, the whimsy drops off in favor of the darker wizard war storylines. But here there’s a lot of whimsy and nothing to attach it to except Newt’s animals, which ultimately don’t have anything to do with Credence or the Obscurious. The two storylines are almost entirely independent of one another. In fact, it would have worked out better for both stories if they had been split into two movies.
All Beasts needs to be is an introduction to the Prohibition-era American wizarding world via Newt and his escaped creatures. Then, once MACUSA is aware of Newt, they can call him back to New York in movie #2 to deal with the mysterious beast that turns out to be the Obscurious. That would let movie #1 just be an adventure caper with magical animals and movie #2 would have more room for the Obscurious, Credence’s story, and the newspaper subplot which is totally irrelevant as is. (We already understand the threat of exposure inherent in the Wizarding World.)
The worldbuilding is as detailed and transporting as you expect from JK Rowling, who wrote the script, but you can tell she’s a writer used to expansive novels where there’s a lot more room to play. Movies aren’t novels, they’re short stories, and Beasts needs some serious editing. This is supposed to be a FIVE film franchise—why are we rushing through SO MUCH in one movie, which is too long already and overcomplicated in some places while being under-explained in others. It’s like the film doesn’t trust Newt and his menagerie to be enough, but they’re the best part. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ends up being less about the beasts, and it’s poorer for it. But when the beasts are free, they truly are fantastic.