The Harry Potter films are many things to many people, but none of them are truly boring. The biggest crime you can commit when creating a world of magic is to rob it of its wonder, and Fantastic Beasts is guilty on several counts. While it has bright ideas, and expansions of the Wizarding mythology that border on inspired, it’s a disjointed entry into the beloved series, but one that somehow manages to pull things together towards the very end.
The inclusion of Newt Scamander in the film, fictitious author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (a 128-page Harry Potter encyclopedia published in 2001, which he’s still in the process of writing here), feels like an artifice. That he’s the film’s key protagonist only exacerbates that problem. The curtain obscuring the series’ true intentions has come down slowly in recent weeks, revealing its long-term focus to be the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, but Fantastic Beasts feels like a film still trying to maintain that central ruse. Not through secrecy – the film opens with a montage of magical newspapers giving us the what’s-what on Grindelwald’s violent exploits – but rather through the pretense that is Scamander himself, for this story of his briefcase of magical creatures is the lesser of the two found in this film, not to mention the far less interesting, and his connection to what appears to be the series’ larger plot feels all but tangential.
Scamander makes his way across the pond to New York City, carrying a wardrobe, a warehouse and world full of animals, all within a single briefcase. The New York he enters is dull and he is an even duller part of it, as Eddie Redmayne shuffles awkwardly through streets and settings that feel visually muted. There’s no wondrous contrast to be found in this world, as New York’s magical locales and local magicians are indecipherable from historical New York, but for the odd Goblin or House Elf dressed suitably 1920s. And yet, New York somehow proves to be the perfect location for a story such as this, where Wizards and No-Maj’s (the American Muggles) occupy the same space in the world, crammed into a melting pot where they rub shoulders with one another, only the Wizards aren’t allowed to reveal themselves or interact with the Muggles.
The film makes a point of mentioning that American magical law prohibits Wizard-Muggle marriage (something Scamander finds completely baffling, though something the film never really follows up on despite the presence of such a relationship), and while Wizards aren’t quite a ‘persecuted’ group just yet, there are whispers about their existence. Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone runs a cult-like orphanage where she indoctrinates children against magical folk. Her “Second Salem” society gains credibility among New Yorkers claiming to have been attacked by magic, an unseen force that prowls through the night and leaves destruction in its wake, and she forms a significant chunk of the film’s more interesting half.
At one of Barebones’ Second Salem rallies, which she runs with her young daughter Modesty and her adopted squib* son Credence (Ezra Miller; a ‘squib’ is a non-magical person born into a Wizard family), Scamander chances upon one Jacob Kowalski, a No-Maj baker who happens to have the same briefcase as him. The expected hijinks ensue thanks to the escape of one of Scamander’s creatures – an adorable hedgehog/platypus-like troublemaker with a penchant for stealing jewelry – resulting in not only the accidental exchange of the two men’s briefcases, but the exposure of magic itself to a handful of ordinary citizens. That’s a big no-no in Wizarding America, and it leads to Scamander being apprehended by Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, a former Auror within the American Ministry looking to regain her reputation.
These three, along with Alison Sudol’s Queenie (Tina’s sister, a bubbly psychic) form the main cast of Fantastic Beasts, and every scene where they aren’t interacting with the other side of the story is an honest-to-God bore. They’re thrown together because a handful of Scamander’s creatures are still on the loose – an invisible ape, a giant, lava-blooded rhinoceros, and the mischievous hedgehog – but outside of Queenie and Kowalski’s mutual curiosity, one never having met a No-Maj and the other never having met a Witch, their function within the story and within the collective dynamic remains as ill-defined as their characters.
Thanks to the presence of a psychic, the leads’ backstories are revealed in words in ways that rarely translate to action. Director David Yates joined the Potter series when its characters were four films and six novels in. Here, he comes aboard at a time when they have no real definition beyond what the actors bring to them (even Kowalski, a character primed for wonder and exposition, rarely serves this purpose), and J.K. Rowling’s failure in this department becomes magnified when Yates is forced to make a meal out of what are essentially scraps. Beyond their initial magical run-in out in public, the scenes involving Scamander, Tina, Queenie and Kowalski are visually and emotionally sterile. The timing of each cut and each line delivery feels awkward and uninspired, as if there were no subtext on which anyone involved could draw, be it the director, the editor or the performers. These scenes hang loosely within in the narrative, taking up far too significant a slice of the film’s first half, with only vague hints at half-baked romance(s) that are even more vaguely defined.
Even when the Potter films got ‘darker’ in both visual and emotional content, Yates managed to make each space come alive. In theory, using a space to tell a story shouldn’t depend on whether its details are allowed to move independently (if that were the case, non-fantasy films would be screwed), but it appears to apply to Yates’ direction on Fantastic Beasts. The spaces matter in this universe. They always have, but here we’re not only presented with scenes set in bland locations for these four characters (nightclubs that may as well be out of any other period drama, apartments just barely spruced up by the odd floating household item), but with the interactions of the characters with those spaces in ways that feel off-kilter. The frames are stationary. The lighting is flat. The actors are stiff-shouldered, but for Redmayne’s slight lean, and there’s little sense that these places are anything but sound stages. Dan Fogler is afforded the opportunity to perform physically at times – his No-Maj Kowalski is both a klutz and an invalid – but even he serves little purpose beyond comic relief. There’s another exception to the movement conundrum involving Eddie Redmayne, and it swings in the complete opposite direction while further exposing the problem. In a scene set in a snowy Central Park, Scamander’s flailing, grunting impersonation of his rhino creature in order to attract its attention (a completely ridiculous sight) is approached with the same visual and auditory language as when Kowalski is first introduced to magical creatures. A sense of awe and wonder. And while Kowalski’s interactions with the magical beasts are a much needed dose of magic, the application of their aesthetic to Redmayne’s nonsense (all the way down to the music!) makes for a scene so silly that it almost breaks the film because of how seriously it takes itself.
This strange, soulless part of the movie finally has life breathed into it when it comes into contact with everything else, i.e. an until-then separate story about the Ministry’s Percival Graves (a commanding Colin Farrell) using Ezra Miller’s Credence against his Witch-hunting mother while in pursuit of a new dark magic. Here’s where the mildest of spoilers come in, though it’s impossible to talk about the things that Fantastic Beasts gets really right without touching on some of the plot.
Contextually, it’s a story about persecution, and while the rules of segregation are set by the Wizards themselves, the premise is a society intolerant of Wizards, embodied creepily by the puritanical Barebones. Her abusive treatment of Credence is what drives him to Graves, who promises the boy a place in the Wizarding World despite his lack of magical ability. The casting of Ezra Miller, a queer actor, for this role reveals itself to have thoughtful layers when it comes to abuse and repression, demanding a small, insignificant physical presence with big, broad emotional strokes. He, like Graves, understands how to hide in plain sight, and as soon as Graves’ view on Grindelwald becomes clear, so do the stakes of what this series has to offer: the complete and total breakdown of the walls between Muggle and Magic, resulting in the liberation of Witches and Wizards from a society that doesn’t accept them.
It’s a shame that this comes nestled between scenes from an entirely different film about Eddie Redmayne’s suitcase, but the conceptual expansion of magical ability fits right in with the darker side of the film. Mind you, this darker side is also impeccably staged, using light and shadow and production design in a way that feels opposite to the rest of the film, because it all stems from character. It’s some of the best use of mood and atmosphere in the entire series, but it feels odd to watch a Harry Potter prequel and wish the scenes of magic and whimsy would end so it could return to its child abuse subplot. Even the non-magical spaces, like Barebones’ rickety, wooden orphanage, feel stylized and typical of the way the Potter films externalize their characters, and none of this care is applied to any of our ‘good guys.’
The biggest addition to the magical mythos is the introduction of the Obscurial, a dark force being sought by Graves, born out of the complete repression of one’s magical abilities from an early age. A haunting visualization of the psychological destructiveness of being forced to repress one’s identity (the kind of parallel that feels reassuring when it comes to Rowling tackling Albus Dumbledore’s homosexuality), the Obscurial not only feels like the first concrete explanation of Ariana Dumbledore, Albus’ late sister whose magical repression comes up in the novels, but within the context of the film, it feels like a dark representation of the effects of persecution itself, and an externalization of pent-up pain.
These elements of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them make it a Potter film worth watching; thematic pieces that feel far more true to the series than any wand or Witch or Wizard. The stories of these darker side characters eventually elevate the leads in ways that, quite frankly, save the entire movie from falling victim to the glaring chasm of its own conceit. I can’t imagine wanting to follow Newt Scamander in future films, a man whose only characteristics are ‘likes animals’ and ‘whispers like Eddie Redmayne’, and while the promise of a massively altered status quo for the Wizarding world never quite comes to fruition – its conclusion fizzles, but its climax is exciting – the film does at the very least hint at possibilities. Not only of what’s to come, but how it’ll likely come to pass: through shifting dynamics in a story about oppression and liberation, though presumably the optics will remain largely straight and white. But hey, if Fantastic Beasts is a film that can survive a laughable cameo from blond, look-at-how-crazy-I-am Mortdecai, it’s probably a film worth your time, even if its sequels already sound more promising by comparison.