â€” WARNING: Spoilers ahead. â€”
No Harry Potter movie has been as good as the book, and that has not changed with J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Whereas the motivating premise of the Harry Potter series was a boy discovering that he was a wizard with magical powers, and by extension the pleasing fantasy for readers and viewersÂ that any of us might secretly be a witch or wizard, Fantastic Beasts is the story of an awkward wizard with a magical creature fetish who packs a lot of them into a suitcase and brings them to 1920s New York only to see them escape. As the creaturesÂ inhabiting the Harry Potter series wereÂ among the least interesting aspects of what was deliciously wondrous world, Fantastic Beasts is significantly less compelling. No child will be dreaming of being “fantastic beast.”
Nonetheless, Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is excellent, and one can really have littleÂ complaint with any of theÂ acting, especially when so much of it is opposite CGI’d animals and effects. Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski is, in particular, a surprisingly delightful meld of actor and character.
The casting is fine to excellent, and with two exceptions, we’re easily kept within the confines of roaring ’20s New York. These exceptions are real life right-wing nut Jon Voight who is a fine actor but for whom it’s now impossible for many of us to see on screen without thinking of his political views. This has been true for many actors from Jane Fonda to George Clooney, and it’s true here too.
The second exception is choice of Carman Ejogo, a black actress, as Seriphina Picquery, the president of the magic users in the United States. The unlikelihood of a black woman as president in 1920s America is bothÂ immediately jarring on screen and smacks of modern-day political correctness in ways that, say, black auror Kingsley Shacklebolt in a late ’90s/early 2000s never did. That Picquery makes a number of terrible decisions in the story does not bolster the argument that Picquery overcame 1920s American racism by virtue of talent. MaybeÂ the counterargument is that the magical world conquered racism well before the Muggle world, but that seems highly unlikely in light of the mudbloods, squibs, and the like. Ultimately, it’s Rowling’s story, and she can make it whatever she wants, butÂ in a rendered world that relies entirely on an audience’s suspension of disbelief, these casting choices where problematic despite both actors doing fine work.
But those are quibbles compared to the heavily weighted storylines, very definitely plural, that make a mess of things. Harry Potter was the story of Harry Potter. Fantastic Beasts is by turns the story of Newt Scamander, Tina Goldstein, Queenie Goldstein, Jacob Kowalski, Percival Graves, Credence Barebone, and the beasts themselves. This makes it very difficult to care about the characters.Â Forced to choose I would pick theÂ Jacob/Queen love storyÂ as the most interesting, butÂ it’s possible we won’t see either character again in the four(!) planned sequels.
Some important plot points were confusing. Why were Newt and Tina sentenced to death and how did this happen without judicial oversight? If the sentence had been successfully carried out, how exactly was President Picquery going to be okay with this? In fact, why was Tina taken into custody in the first place? She tried to warn the president, was rebuked, then arrested for not warning the president 24 hours later. Since these events help finally shake the movie out of its lethargy and into a moderately exciting if not interesting climax, they’re important for coherency’s sake.
The easy explanation is thatÂ Fantastic Beasts was directed by David Yates, who also helmed the final four Harry Potter films. That makes him responsible for the worst book-to-movie travesty, the death of Voldemort. That Rowling believed Yates to be the right choice here, surely indicates that she didn’t find it necessary to putÂ the richness of her own work on the screen or, perhaps worse, that she doesn’t understand what makes movies worth watching.
The sturm und drang of special effects without heart doesn’t makes anythingÂ magical. It’s not the CGI beasts that we care about, it’s the story and the people. It’s disheartening to think that Rowling, a screenwriter here for the first time, may not understand this, when in a different context, she so clearly does.