Like many of the wondrous animals that inhabit its world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an amalgamation. Except, unlike the hippogriff, which capitalizes on the strengths of both the eagle and the horse, David Yates’s film compromises the adventures of Newt Scamander with a plodding police procedural. The result is less like the streamlined elegance of the hippogriff, and more like whatever happened to Jeff Goldblum at the very end of The Fly. Every time Newt and his compatriots are on screen, the film is an absolute delight that reminds us why we fell in love with the wizarding world in the first place. And every time they’re not, we’re reminded that David Yates is responsible for two of the three worst Harry Potter films to date. Fantastic Beasts ends up somewhere in the middle, with no time-turner available to right the wrong and spare the life of this innocent little hippogriff.
Its dual nature suggests that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them be summarized in two parts. In the first and far more interesting part, magizooligist Newt Scamader (Eddie Redmayne), writer of the textbook that lends its name to this film, comes to America to return a magic creature to its rightful home. In the process, he accidentally swaps suitcases with an aspiring baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and some of Newt’s creatures escape. The two team up with a demoted ex-auror named Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her bubbly mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to catch the wayward beasts, which also involves them in the B-plot of the film.
A more apt name might be the D-minus plot (and that’s just so I don’t have to see it again next year). The reason for Tina’s demotion is that she openly confronted a religious nut named Mary Lou Barebone, who proselytizes about the danger of witches and beats her adopted children every chance she gets (you know, so the audience understands she’s evil). Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) takes his own interest in the family when he discovers that one of the children is hosting an extremely powerful Obscurus – a magical force of CGI smoke and dirt that develops when a nascent wizard suppresses their powers. This second plot involves sussing out exactly who is the Obscurus, and unfortunately Newt and his exploits get entangled in the whole affair.
But before all of that, we’re treated to some fantastic sequences. There is a deft mix of comedy and wonder throughout, from the meet-cute of Newt and Jacob at the bank, all the way to when they catch the final missing creature in a teacup. It’s awesome, light-hearted, and perfectly performed by Redmayne and Fogler, both of whom deliver impeccable performances. Fogler is particularly noteworthy, and pretty much steals whatever scene he is in.
The sisters Tina and Queenie are fine characters, with Queenie being more interesting and Tina kind of a bummer and a throw-away in the grand scope of the story. As a rule, when they get to interact with Newt and Jacob everything is fine. When they are wandering through the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), you start checking your watch.
Sadly, Colin Farrell is once again wasted in a blockbuster-type movie. As Percival Graves, he is given no discernible motivation, engages in cryptic meetings with a member of the Barebone family, and in general lacks characteristic. It can’t be hard to take advantage of Farrell’s talents, but it goes wrong for him in bigger Hollywood fare more often than not. As a fan, it is frustrating to see him used so poorly when he has astounding performances under his belt like The Lobster, Saving Mr. Banks, In Bruges, and even Minority Report. Perhaps it speaks to the overall weakness of the portion of the plot that he was involved with, which is actually worse than I am able to reveal here due to spoilers. Suffice to say that it is ultimately unearned, baffling, and sloppy as anything seen before in the Harry Potter franchise (excepting possibly The Half-Blood Prince reveal, which was also David Yates’s fault).
The aforementioned bifurcation of this film goes beyond simple plot lines. One portion of the film is a starry-eyed introduction to myriad fantasy creatures and the other is a dour whodunit involving multiple deaths, child-beating, and a literal execution sentence given to one of the main characters. Hence, one might expect the tone to be slightly uneven. For those unattuned to internet sarcasm, let me be clearer: it is wonder that viewers don’t get whiplash from watching this movie. In the span of five minutes we are treated to pratfalls and shtick as Newt tracks down a pilfering little weasel-looking thing, and then exposed to a character being murdered by blunt-force trauma. It’s just an impossible marriage of subject; make one movie or make the other. Any attempt to force them together must fail.
Ditto for the visual effects and CGI in the film. When we’re looking at Newt’s creatures, that sense of wonder shines through and we’re left enchanted by the endless possibilities of magic. When the Obscurus is on screen, it is a whirling dirt-devil of CGI madness that is worse than any effect you’ll see in a Transformers movie. Even some of the motion capture (used for some of the goblins and elves) is mired a little too close to the uncanny valley.
Like all contradictions, when both plots are forced to come together in the end, it is the better half that suffers from the combination. The ending of the film is relatively senseless, contains weird plotholes that I am sure were explained in one-and-a-half sentences in the book, and features some of the laziest cop-outs I have seen in the Harry Potter world. Conveniences pile up, nothing really concludes in any satisfactory way, and we’re left in a saddened state that betrays all the fun that we did have with Newt and company.
In the end, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suffers from a textbook case of trying to do too much. J.K. Rowling wanted to stuff political intrigue, the grittiness of the latter half of the Harry Potter franchise, and hamfisted critiques of American culture into her story about magical animals. It’s a poor combination, and severely damages the resulting film. The quality is there – it is just hidden underneath a load of garbage. For the sequels, let’s hope that the filmmakers choose to steer more towards the direction of light-hearted fun and exploration, and less towards child abuse and executions. Because we can’t possibly expect some mixture of these to work out. So, ask yourselves this one question: would you rather spend two hours with Newt Scamander, or with Percival Graves?