Here’s the thing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: there’s nothing really that wrong with the movie. In fact, if we’re being honest, I mostly enjoyed it; for all of its flaws (which I’ll get into), there’s something fun about getting to explore J.K. Rowling’s world of magic beyond the boundaries of Harry Potter’s experiences. And yet, for much of the film’s runtime, all I could really think was, Honestly, there’s not really much point in this movie, is there? And is this really the first of five?
And look, I get it. I get that there was money to be made. I get that someone wanted to make a movie set in Rowling’s world, and when Rowling herself says that not only does she have a story, but she wants to write the screenplay – and its four sequels – no executive in their right mind is going to pass that chance up. And if you can accept all of that, what you’ll get is a fun time at the movies. There are spells aplenty, wondrous creatures that feel imaginative and spectacular, the gleeful exploration of a magical world that stands right next to ours…all of the things that Rowling was already doing so well in the Potter books, but expanded beyond the narrow scope of those novels. And for all my frustrations with the movie, there’s something incredible about the first time we explore Newt Scamander’s menagerie in all of its scope that makes you remember what it was like reading the Potter books for the first time.
But for all of that, you can’t help but feel what I’m calling “the Marvel problem” hanging heavily over the film. That problem is this: when a movie spends so long setting up the threads of its franchise that it forgets to work as a standalone film of its own. Because, let’s be honest, the story of this film only barely hangs together. (My simple, biggest issue: Newt has literally nothing to do with the “big” story of the film, and only gets crammed in through random luck and happenstance, which is a bad foundation for a story.) It’s crammed with major characters who apparently will only be important later, unless we’re just assuming that a casting director decided to see how many great actors he could waste in thankless roles. (I truly don’t understand why Jon Voight is in this film, but by the end, I understood even less why Samantha Morton was in it. As for the Very Big Cameo near the end, I’m assuming that’s a sign-on for a bigger role to come in later films.)
But more than that, the film just veers wildly all over the place, not only in plot terms, but in tonal shifts. We shift from Eddie Redmayne’s broad physical comedy as he attempts to seduce a massive magical creature in heat to a grim depiction of a religious zealot who abuses her adoptive wards; we take on broad magical international politics and then drop them again a few scenes later, and if you’re trying to figure out exactly how easy or hard it is to cover up evidence of magic in 1920’s America, well, good luck following any of that consistency here. The characters are fine enough, sure, and I’ll be the first to admit that I quite enjoyed Redmayne’s odd, antisocial, withdrawn performance, feeling like it brought an interesting dynamic to the film. (Though it doesn’t help the feeling that the film is only barely about Newt.) But it all just feels like sound and fury that signifies nothing.
Which brings me back to this: is there any need for four more of these? I love Rowling’s wonderful world, and I love her imaginative details, her rich “mythology” that just keeps expanding. And there’s no denying that those aspects of the film are the most engaging aspects. But as we start diving back into another Big Bad Wizard arc, and back into the Potter mythology that we’ve already covered, there’s a sense that there’s a fine line between fan-service and a new series, and I’m not sure Fantastic Beasts has enough to push it beyond the former.
Given my son’s reaction, though, I’m sure I’ll still be seeing them. Which, I guess, means the studio gets what it wants, and everyone wins. It’s just that I was hoping for more of a movie, and less of another interminable franchise all about setting up the next movie.