The Harry Potter franchise has always struck me as this generation’s Star Wars. Between the devoted fanbase, expanded universe and desire for its creator just to keep adding and adjusting, it seems as though Voldemort is the new Darth Vader. Unfortunately, using this metaphor, that means that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the new Episode 1.
After seeing the film, this is not a bad comparison.
Directed by David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films), Fantastic Beasts is set as a complete prequel to the experiences of ‘The Boy Who Lived.’ The film follows Newt Scarmander (Eddie Redmayne), aspiring textbook author and all-around awkward fellow. Newt has traveled to New York for extraordinarily irrelevant reasons, and much to his dismay, several of his collected ‘beasts’ go missing. This puts him in an especially precarious position due to some unknown force that is terrorizing New York.
What makes Fantastic Beasts narratively significant is that it shares its time between the magic and non-magic worlds. The film accounts for this by showcasing a growing anti-magic sentiment (though there is no concrete evidence that the ‘witches’ being talked about hold the same power as our witches). This could be very interesting, if not for the fact that it is used as a way to make the white, attractive protagonists seem more like underdogs and less like all powerful beings that can do just about anything.
What makes Fantastic Beasts authorially significant is that JK Rowling is credited with writing both the source material and the screenplay. This is interesting because JK Rowling is a novelist, not a screenwriter. And while some of the skills are transferable, others are not quite so simple.
For instance, while there might be quite a bit of character work behind the scenes, none of that is inherently evident within the 133 minutes of screen time. While each actor-character combo may be clearly making a choice, that choice is not always clear. The result is that the audience is left with a group of flat characters and no real reason to identify with or follow them. Especially when all the characters do is create chaos and then try to resolve that chaos.
Next, the (text)book is simply framed as an examination of the various ‘beasts’ that exist within the Harry Potter universe, which doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable film. So to make the movie less experimental and more narrative, there are several antagonists looking to destroy the world. This doesn’t really fit with the silly-gag story about collecting all the fantastic beasts.
Finally, the story races between these multiple storylines at Quidditch-like pace, not only forgetting to provide a reason to care but creating an extraordinarily overwhelming feeling. The last time a movie worked so hard with so little reward, we got Suicide Squad. And personally, the two films are of comparable quality. Though if you’re giddy with excitement about returning to a world of magic, this overwhelming style may only add to your excitement.
The technical aspects of the film only add to this chaotic style. The camera is in a near-constant state of motion, which is overwhelming due to all of the background details. As an audience member, you are only able to focus on one or two things at a time, and there’s a general sense of frustration that the movie causes with its sweeping pans. The camera angles are strange, and a little off-putting, while the effects often only draw attention away from the moment at hand.
The trend of giving Eddie Redmayne lead roles is a little frustrating as well. Honestly, I haven’t really liked him in a movie since Les Miserables. Sure, he’s an Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning actor for his well-intentioned but borderline offensive roles as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, but he always seems a little too ridiculous to me. And not in a good way. More like a ‘what are you doing in Jupiter Ascending’ type of way. Here, he’s uninspiring and frankly a bit annoying. He’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a bad sign when Colin Farrell seems to be giving the more controlled and down-to-earth performance.
Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston are charismatic yet flat in the other supporting roles, and Ezra Miller is angsty and creepy in a one-note sort of way. None of the actors are painful to watch, but they don’t do anything particularly interesting either. The only real surprise is Dan Fogler, unrecognizable as the film’s straight man. He is far and away the star of the movie, and the only one the audience is really able to latch on to.
I suppose it’s a good thing for there to be stylistic differentiation in a prequel, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a definite step in the wrong direction. There’s certainly a lot to chew on for devoted fans, but Fantastic Beasts is a full buffet being shoved down your throat. There may be some choking.
The thing is, a few simple structural changes would likely fix many of the film’s problems. Fantastic Beasts is simply missing a perspective to follow. While the movie wouldn’t have to take up a mockumentary style, by presenting itself as a guide, suddenly there is a purpose and a reason to follow the characters. Instead, the movie follows a safe and bland path, providing little reason for the audience to care about the film other than the fact that it’s the world of Harry Potter. Hopefully, the next four films (yes, four) will seem a little more magical.