Among the most successful film franchises of all time, Harry Potter invited audiences to a world of magic and adventure at the wizarding school of Hogwarts. But for the next film in JK Rowling’s series, Fantastic Beasts introduces new characters, a different time-period, and a new setting in the streets of New York. For the most part, this change in tone and perspective helps remove some of the sameness that comes with franchise reboots and spin-offs. But while the immediate film is certainly enjoyable, the quality falters when Fantastic Beasts’ focuses more on setting up sequels then its own strengths as a stand-alone adventure.
With the shackles of the Harry Potter storyline removed, Fantastic Beasts‘ is allowed to forge its own identity, creating a more adult interpretation of the wizarding world then we are familiar with. the 1920’s setting compliments this new direction by stewing the film in a combination of prohibition-time intrigue, as well as a look into the differences between how British and American wizarding communities function. While there are the occasional name-drops that longtime fans will enjoy, they never distract from the immediate actions in the film, merely serving to add context to the film in relation to the Harry Potter series.
Most of the performances add plenty of dramatic weight to your traditional blockbuster fare. Eddie Redmaynes’ Newt Scamander is portrayed as a Grizzly Man/Steve Irwin-esque figure, a man whose inability to connect with people is only outmatched by his love and respect for animals. Theres a legitimate love and care that comes from Redmayne in these scenes, and it brings a lot of life to what are otherwise CGI animals. Special mention should be made to Dan Fogler, who delivers an enjoyable turn as Scamander’s friend, even while he never breaks out of the typical comedic relief archetype.
And while these performances are all well and good, the real stars of Fantastic Beasts are the beasts themselves. While the CGI doesn’t exactly make them appear lifelike, the designs manage to shine through, and give us some of the more creative moments in the film. At its best, the film takes the time to explore these creatures, making even the more wildly creative beasts feel fully fleshed out, if not more believable. The team behind bringing these creatures to life should be commended for their work, and are likely to receive recognition for their efforts come awards season.
Sadly, For a film titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there aren’t that many to find. While that isn’t to say this aspect of the film is neglected all together, a large portion of this film spends its time setting up sequels, and it never naturally melds with the Fantastic Beasts‘ portion. Often, the film stops things just as they seem to be getting interesting, and it never seems to gain back its momentum. Perhaps this comes from the length of the original story, but the way Director David Yates attempts to overcome this ends up distracting from the stand-alone strengths of this first entry into a new series. While things appear to get larger-then-life by the end, it all feels artificial with the knowledge that they are setting up something supposedly bigger.
Making matters worse is the set up for upcoming villain Grindelwald. For those who don’t know, he’s intended to be this series’s Voldemort, but he never feels natural in Fantastic Beasts‘ plot, even harming what seemed to be the films’ main antagonist by-association. Yet despite this, the film constantly treats each mention of the name Grindelwald like a bombshell, much in the same way the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity was handled in the last Star Wars film; this is problematic, considering what should be the jumping point for anyone not intimately familiar with the Harry Potter franchise are already being left out of major moments in Fantastic Beasts, just because they didn’t already read the book and know why this Grindelwald person is so important. And with how prevalent these mentions are within the film, it ends up making Fantastic Beasts feeling like a side-story in its own film.
There’s plenty to enjoy in Fantastic Beasts, but the film never allows you to sit back and enjoy it on its own merits. By forcing a stand-alone plot into the role of a franchise stepping stone, the plot feels inconsequential, with constant reminders of “something bigger coming” undercutting the importance of the current events going on in the film. There’s still plenty to love, from strong performances from the lead stars, and creative creature design that will delight audiences young and old alike. But the constant set ups to future events, and the overall lack of focus, takes away most of the magic that we should have found from the get go.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 6.5 Albino Bad Guys out of 10