Prohibitionism and Parnassianism abound in the latest film to emerge from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world. Set in New York City in 1926, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them explores the (mis)adventures of one Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard stopping over in New York after having travelled the globe in pursuit of various magical creatures. What was expected to be a short stay in the Big Apple turns out to be an odyssey that involves pernicious anti-witch sentiment, strange occurrences of mass destruction across the city, and the infamous dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. While Fantastic Beasts is a solid success and an exciting opening act to the new film series, its enjoyment is dogged by rigidity of form and a troubling lack of emotional gumption.
The strongest suit of the film is its dense and exciting plot, full of allusions to the original Harry Potter series that leave both members of the fandom and newcomers (if there are any) guessing about the films to come, with plenty of action to make the film a standalone success. This plot advancement, however, is often bogged down by other factors. Cinematographic excess results in meandering portions of the film focused entirely on the visual spectacle of Newt Scamander’s beasts. Meanwhile, the stock-stereotype version of New York stilts the film into an odd space of unreality, something ironic but possibly inevitable in historically-based fantasy. Finally, the lack of depth of many characters impinges on the film’s ability to resonate with the audience.
To be sure, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a success despite its shortcomings…and in many regards, this first film feels like a somewhat-forced but necessary set-up for the real show to come.
Granted, Rowling is somewhat obliged to these impediments. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is, after all, based on a textbook Harry Potter and his fellow students read at Hogwarts. So Rowling could not forego giving due screen time to Scamander’s myriad of mythical beasts. But all the scenes of extravagant action and visuals from twiggy Bowtruckles to flying Billywigs to rhinoceros-like Erumpents do sometimes come across as superfluous indulgence.
As for the setting, New York feels a bit contrived – it felt like the film could have just as easily been set in Britain, upon Newt’s return, or anywhere else in the world since he was traveling so extensively. Of course, it could turn out that the trans-Atlantic setting has some role to play in the future films, but for now the period and locale seem simply to be a trite appeal to aesthetics, what with the iconic flapper dresses, aboveground railways, gritty New York streets, and flashing lights that expose the underground excess of the Prohibition era. All this pandering to the audience’s eye deals a blow to the heart of the film. Much like how lavish CGI and grandiose effects burdened the Hobbit trilogy, so is Fantastic Beasts negatively affected by the pursuit of perfect structure and form in the visual medium.
Lastly, there is no good reason for the lack of character development, particularly for female leads Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). Even Newt Scamander himself is lacking. These prominent characters are tepid reflections of personality, and their tacked-on character quirks (such as Newt’s awkwardness and perpetual semi-confusion) are not sufficient to remedy the issue. This is the greatest pitfall of an otherwise entertaining and successful movie. Each of the characters has the potential to be as memorable, fleshed-out, and complex as those of the original Potter series, yet they fall sorely short of their predecessors (or successors, if counting by the films’ timeline). But perhaps the future Fantastic Beasts films will grant them a chance.
All in all, these three factors stunt the film’s success by making it awkwardly straddle the childish whimsy of the early Potter films and the darkness of the later ones. With less focus on cinematography, effects, and visual ‘wow’, it could have delved the depths of the characters and the story itself, creating a more comprehensive view of a story full of both unexpected laughter and unthinkable horror. It is difficult to sympathize with the characters, or to feel their joy and sorrow at the occurrences surrounding them, when they are painted with a blunted brush and dull pigments. Still, the plot renders the film fabulous entertainment, and if you enjoy special effects cinematography and fantastical creatures, then there’s a double bonus there. To be sure, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a success despite its shortcomings, and the very best part is the promise of even greater excitement and intrigue in the four upcoming films. In many regards, this first film feels like a somewhat-forced but necessary set-up for the real show to come.