Every now and then I see a film that is easy to dissect and criticize, but however many flaws pile up it still adds up to be a wholly enjoyable experience. I’m not talking about “so bad it’s good” films, I’m talking about films that are genuinely, unironically amusing in spite of many pitfalls. “Okay movies that are great” I guess they could be called. (Sky High (2005) comes to mind.) There are many glaring problems with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, none that I can completely justify, but all that I can overlook due to sheer pleasantness.
Director David Yates (who directed four Harry Potter films prior) and first time screenwriter JK Rowling (you know who she is) deliver a surprisingly fresh film for a 8th installment. However Fantastic Beasts suffers from something that many blockbusters of it’s ilk suffer from: too much. There are one too many characters, set pieces, pieces of world building mythology that don’t serve the story, and too many plot threads that need not coexist.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), has arrived in America to set a large magic bird free in the Arizona wilderness, and more generally work on his book to further the understanding of magical creatures. His creatures escape from his magic suitcase, and he must collect them before they cause trouble.
Parallel to this story there are the Second Salemers, an anti-wizard cult of no-maj (American muggles) who warn against the evils of magic. Ezra Miller is captivating as Credence, a disturbed young Salemer who secretly corresponds with magic government agent Percival Graves (Colin Farrel). Graves suspects one of the children in the cult is an obscurial- a dangerous black orb that manifests when a wizard represses their magical abilities.
These two stories have seemingly nothing to do with one another. Their coexistence is merely coincidence- Newt just happens to be visiting New York City when this unfolds, and he accidentally falls in with Tina (Katherine Waterston) a disgraced government wizard, who involves herself in the case of the Second Salemers. They could have just told one story or the other, neither plot needs the other to exist. It seems clear to me that Rowling began writing the film as planned, an adaptation of her faux textbook of the same name, and then decided to include the bureaucratic/societal drama and Harry Potter lore to set up future films after the fact.
But hey, despite being two distinct parts, both plots are fun. The Second Salemer story delivers genuinely creepy horror. Newt’s antics are endearingly entertaining. His creatures are brought to life with fantastic visual effects, delectable designs, and adorable animated performances.
Newt’s non-wizard sidekick Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) isn’t a necessary character. After 7 books, 8 movies, an amusement park and general pop culture saturation, this film hardly needs an audience surrogate to ease people into JK Rowling’s wizarding world. For the first 20 minutes or so he does nothing but grin and act perplexed. But he’s funny and nice, and Fogler has great chemistry with his cast mates. Similarly Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the mind reading sister Tina, is in a similar position. Superfluous, but likable. In the first act I was bothered by their inconsequential existence, but by the end I was rooting for both of them. It takes a lot of cute to justify existence on it’s own. But Queenie and Jacob do just that, they earn their place by being cute. So cute that it transcends dumbness. Like baby penguin cute. Like Chris Pratt cute.
Beasts makes great use of the 1920s setting. There has been a trend the last few years with tentpole blockbusters taking on a period setting. The last three X-Men movies took place in the 60s, 70s, and 80s respectively. Captain America’s first flick was a WWII movie. Wonder Woman’s big screen debut will be set during WWI. Just yesterday I watched Men In Black 3, that took place in 1969. These films are usually very self aware of their period settings. They exaggerate the fashion and period design, plug recognizable period tunes into the soundtrack, and remind the audience with constant quips that “Hey this takes place in the 80s/40s/Whenever!” Fantastic Beasts is surprisingly subtle, and doesn’t make too big a deal of it’s period setting.. The design of the Harry Potter world already lends itself to old-timey-ness, so the roaring 20s fits the brand like a glove. 1920s New York is alive with art deco buildings and cobblestone streets. Goblin gangsters dwell in wizarding speakeasies, and leather trench coat clad wizard cops ooze cool.
It’s not a piece of airtight cinema, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fun way to spend your time. It’s a worthwhile distraction if you couldn’t care less about Harry Potter, and for die hard fans it’s a substantial expansion on an already lush mythos. Gripes and all, I liked this movie. Beasts has started the effort to revitalize the Harry Potter film franchise on the right foot down the path into infinite oblivion that so many (Marvel and Star Wars) have already begun.
I give this movie 7 Fantastic Beasts out of 10 Places to Find Them.