A product of the Harry Potter franchise, and arguably one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Dir. David Yates) is an ambitious attempt to extend the former’s universe that, although making a valiant effort, ultimately misses the mark. Suffering from the common problem encountered by most spin-off series, Fantastic Beasts both struggles to emulate the core elements that made its predecessors so successful and to separate itself enough from Hogwarts to allow itself its own breathing space.
On one hand, it’s understandable that we’re presented with numerous references Hogwarts and its sizeable paraphernalia, considering that Fantastic Beasts is a pseudo-prequel for the events that occur within the school. On the other, however, it constantly skirts the line of coasting along it predecessors’ popularity, failing to really add any originality or uniqueness to its imagined universe and opting instead for ostentatious pandering towards its already established fan-base. This is particularly disappointing given that spin-off productions offer the opportunity to deviate from exhausted territories in their endeavours of expanding their respective universes, which would have been a welcome breath of fresh air in this circumstance.
Set in 1920s New York rather than the English landscape commonly associated with the Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts is a muddle of lavish set and costume designs that never quite seem to work alongside its gratuitous CGI creations. In spite of its attempts to emulate the exhaustive detail so commonly associated with Rowling’s previous creations; its environment offers little more than an implication of extravagance and splendour that feels as if it were a faint shadow of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby (2013).
Using its environment as a springboard to introduce issues like inter-marriage between wizards and “No-Majs” (the American term for ‘muggle’, apparently) and their relative segregation from each other, Fantastic Beasts quickly becomes chaotic in its attempts to lay the ground-work for its sequels. Even at its base plot—simply the problem that Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne)’s collection of creatures has been accidentally unleashed upon New York—the film is riddled with discrepancies, mainly through the wizarding world’s strict law system that strives to separate magic and No-Maj communities.
These rules of separation are quickly broken with the introduction of the No-Maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler), allowing for further rule-breaking through an almost constant stream of overt magical acts occurring regardless of the supposed consequences inferred by the disgraced auror Porpetina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Not only becoming steadily tiresome as the film progresses, these instances act as a pointed segue for the themes of battling oppression and segregation to slot themselves into the narrative with an ease that appears sloppy in their lack of direction or depth amidst everything else, falling prey to the typical pitfalls of magically motivated movies.
Given that magic is the central concept of the film, it constantly skirts the line of appearing lazy through the convenience that magic affords its plot and its possibilities. Since anything can happen, anything can effectively be resolved with ease by the same logic. It’s here that Fantastic Beasts stumbles, with its seemingly unnecessary diversions and complications that seem to arise hand-in-hand with its characters’ actions and miscommunications. This becomes all the more frustrating when the established systems of wizard law and government are effectively dismissed in the film’s conclusion where the collective minds of New York’s No-Majs are magically erased, not only contradicting its own ideologies but rendering its characters’ endeavours unimpressive if not totally pointless.
Overall—and despite its potential for a welcome change of scenery within J K Rowling’s imagine universe—Fantastic Beasts ultimately lingers in the shadow of the Harry Potter saga through its almost complete abandonment of everything that made its predecessors so successful in the first place. Where the Harry Potter movies seemed constructed in such a way that everything (in general terms of visual and narrative components) seemed purposeful towards the overall story, Fantastic Beasts merely comes across as a pointed starter point for its sequels that struggles to create a foothold for its (four!!) sequels to grapple onto. And while shallow sub-plots are to be expected of the initial film within a series, here the attempts to introduce future thematic centre-points seems lazy and hasty in their predictability.
However, in saying this, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is undoubtedly clever in its references to and development of certain strands of J K Rowling’s work (most notably the intertwining of Grindlewald’s narrative), and its ability to meet the expectations of its already established audiences cannot go unnoticed. But even these slight positives are overshadowed by its distinctly juvenile flavour; as the whole film just seems as if it’s been stretched out to fill its 2hr 13min run-time, and its clunky endeavours into including romantic interest combine with its under-developed yet predictable narrative strands in a way that ultimately generates an atmosphere of banality upon its closing sequence.