Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a solid piece of popcorn entertainment.
It is, to be clear, just a little overstuffed. Its cast is so large that it borders on unwieldy. Its runtime is just a little bit bloated. It devotes far too much time and energy to setting up movies that will be released over the next couple of years. It is a surprisingly dark movie for a film that seems to set a whimsical tone. Its central metaphors get a little muddled. Its version of America feels like it has been stitched together by a collection of anthropologists who have access to well-worn copies of King Kong and Citizen Kane.
Still, there is an undeniable charm to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a movie that luxuriates in the chance to explore a familiar universe through a different perspective. Given the success of the franchise in all media, it was inevitable that audiences would get “an American Harry Potter.” In fact, it could be argued that there have been any number of ill-fated attempts over the years including films like Mortal Instruments. If “an American Harry Potter” was to be inescapable, there are worse options than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them never quite matches the height of its parent franchise, but occasionally manages to recapture some of the magic.
In many ways, the Harry Potter franchise took place in a theme park version of the United Kingdom. It was a magical reimagining of the country that wasn’t necessarily filtered through millennia of myth and tradition so much as popular perception. J.K. Rowling might have been British, but she innately understood the popular conception of the country. Part of charm of Harry Potter was the exaggeration of its Britishness, from “the Ministry of Magic” to Hogwarts as the ultimate Oxbridge school to the franchise’s status as a boarding house for iconic British performers.
With that in mind, it makes sense (and is even part of the appeal) that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them explores a fantastical America that has been painted with a very broad brush. Focusing on the magical zoologist Newt Scamander, a large part of the appeal of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them lies in its exploration of the American magical community. Along with the jump back in time to the late nineteen twenties, this immediately helps to distinguish Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them from its parent franchise.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers a version of New York City steeped in Americana. The eponymous wildlife, who escape into the city, seem to find themselves ticking off tourist guides. One beast seeks refuge in Central Park, while another nestles inside Macy’s on Fifth Avenue. The Empire State Building is still under construction, although Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them cannot resist the urge to include shots of the title character walking across those iconic steel beams overlooking the city.
This fantastical version of America seems cobbled together from hazy memories of popular culture, from great stories and memorable visuals blended together to form a magical landscape. The basic premise of the film recalls King Kong, with its tale of exotic creatures let loose in the urban sprawl to be hunted by humanity; the climax of the film rather cleverly inverts the iconic climax of King Kong, understanding that it is not possible to compete directly with the iconography.
More than that, a prominent supporting role is afforded to a newspaper magnate who positions himself as the patriarch of a new American dynasty. “Shaw” is close enough to “Kane”, and the movie plays into that comparison by offering a campaign launch the consciously evokes Orson Welles’ classic tale of the American experience. If Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to be an exploration of the American magical community, it makes sense that it should take its cues from King Kong and Citizen Kane.
The film also shrewdly tries to blend the storytelling sensibilities of the Harry Potter series with the dominant form of the American blockbuster, the superhero film. In fact, the climax of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them features a supporting character effectively going “full Magneto” while a dark cloud hangs over New York City. As with every blockbuster from The Avengers to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there is a lot of 9/11 imagery to be found. Indeed, the cloud is a raging storm, evoking the holes that tend to loom over the Manhattan skyline in film.
This is where the film arguably makes its biggest thematic misstep. In seeking to emulate the dominant superhero genre, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them falls back on the idea of a super-powered minority hated and feared by the majority. The magical community in New York find themselves separated from the “No-majs”, the ordinary folk. “I hear you can’t even marry them,” Newt reflects early in the film, all but assuring an inevitable romance between a wizard and a regular person.
However, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them gets a little muddled in its explorations of these themes. The film is never entirely sure who is oppressing whom. The wizards are obviously a minority in the city, and subject to fear and loathing by their human counterparts. However, the wizards are also a hugely powerful class that are legitimately dangerous to the entire city and routinely use their powers to manipulate and exploit their human neighbours. More than that, it is the wizards who maintain their own miscegenation laws.
As a result, the politics at the heart of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feel decidedly clumsy, particularly in the context of 2016. The wizarding community are clearly a powerful and influential bloc in this fictional New York City. In fact, they seem to lend themselves to the same broad criticisms that Republicans and Trump voters employ against their enemies. They are a persecuted minority that do in fact operate a secret government and who do conspire together behind the backs of the regular people. It is a very uncomfortable and awkward metaphor.
To be fair, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them works much better when it avoids these racial overtones in favour of a broader humanism. The entire premise of the film is decidedly humane. Newt is a zoologist who argues for the preservation and respect of magical animals, something that his wizarding colleagues reject out of hand. There is a charming message about conservation and wonder there, about the necessity to protect and encourage the world’s natural wonders.
Appropriately enough, these creatures are themselves a reflection of the movie’s American setting. Newt is visiting America to release a giant eagle-like creature into the great open spaces of Arizona. He travels with the last breeding pair of two Buffalo-like creatures. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not exactly subtle in its imagery or its inspirations. Then again, that is part of the charm. Magic is metaphor, the belief in the power of words to change the world. Magic is storytelling.
The big threat in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the “obscura”, a representation of repressed and forgotten suffering that tears through the country “like a dark cloud with eyes.” It seems appropriate that it should feature so prominently in a movie fascinated with American conservatism. The “New Salemists” are conducting modern witchhunts. Shaw’s son appears to be running on a prohibition-friendly platform. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suggests that repression and suppression can only lead to more suffering.
The “obscura” is perhaps the movie’s most insightful Americanism, the idea that past injustices and crimes only fester if buried or hidden. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film that is consciously steeped in American imagery: New York’s magical buildings are pointedly skyscrapers, building up to infinity; there is a fixation upon great seals, whether on doors or on marble floors; the clocks inside the MCUSA headquarters indicate a colour-coded threat level that recalls the system implemented during the Bush era.
At the same time, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them remains a very British story. Most obviously, Rowling is heavily influenced by Doctor Who in the characterisation of Newt. A socially-awkward young man who is wise beyond his years, it feels as though Eddie Redmayne is doing his best Matt Smith impression. The bow tie is an obvious clue, but the scarf and the “decorative vegetable” are just icing on the proverbial cake. The Harry Potter films have long made use of hidden and extended spaces, but Newt is the first magician to travel with a TARDIS.
There is an endearing sense of whimsy to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which stands quite apart from the apocalyptic tone of the last few Harry Potter films. At the same time, director David Yates feels like an awkward fit for the movie. Yates is a director who works well with dark material, in terms of lighting and tone. However, that darkness feels like an awkward fit for the adventure of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A lot of the film takes place at night, and there is perhaps too much emphasis on death and suffering for a tale of runaway animals.
Indeed, the weakest aspect of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them from a production point of view is the fact that it feels too much like a late-stage Harry Potter film. Those films earned their darkness through a contrast with the earlier films. Instead, it feels like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them starts from a pretty dark place, even if that darkness feels a little like overkill at this point in the overall arc. Newt and his friends do have fun over the course of their adventure, but there is also a surprising amount of dread seeded through the film.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also feels like a very conscious and forced attempt to build a motion picture franchise. Rather than focusing on its own narrative, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very clearly and consciously setting up another four films. This is clear in various ways, some of which distract from the film itself. The casting is most obvious, particularly the small role given to Jon Voight to seed the sequels, a late-film cameo that is so obvious as to be inevitable, and a silent appearance of Zoe Kravitz in a picture.
There is a slight sense of bloat to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, particularly in its final act. It feels like the final fifteen minutes might readily have been condensed down to three by a more ruthless editor dedicated to the integrity of this individual film. This is particularly frustrating, given that these various elements are painful signposted as early as the opening credits. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does not end with a sense of resolution, so much as a sense of inevitability. Which is all too common a flaw these days.
Still, there is a lot to enjoy about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It is a very straightforward and effective blockbuster, albeit one that creaks a little bit under the franchise weight and the expanded runtime. Still, there is enough energy to carry the movie for most of its two hours, and there are any number of compelling and interesting visuals. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not as exotic as it might like to think, but it is still impressive.