Fantastic Beasts: An Okay First Installment in the Harry Potter Extended Universe

dylyn-petersonBY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

I was nervous about Fantastic Beasts, to be honest. The book doesn’t strike me as particularly filmworthy. I didn’t like the last three Harry Potter films (Half-Blood Prince in particular), and they brought back the same director, David Yates, responsible for those movies. J.K. Rowling is also here in her first screenwriting capacity, which was also concerning, but I doubted she could bring bad dialogue tags into a script, so I stayed hopeful.

This hope wasn’t quite misplaced. The cast was perfect across the board, especially Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander and Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone. It was also amusing to see Ron Perlman as a goblin version of his character from Pacific Rim, but that’s neither here nor there. The characters, though, were less impressive. Newt, for example, gets hardly any characterization or lines, leaving Redmayne to act mostly with his face. This is fine, although it is distracting how much he looks like a less attractive Will Elliott without glasses. Even once we learn more about who Newt is and what he does, he never quite loses the flavor of “the Doctor in the Potterverse.” Amusingly, they had considered Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor, for the part; I’d pay good money to travel to the alternate reality where that version exists.

As somebody currently playing a magic user in 1920s New York City in a Pathfinder campaign, I’m left unimpressed by the prospect after seeing Fantastic Beasts. New York is colorless and without character, and not used to any good effect. The only scene in a notable location happens in the Central Park Zoo, and even that is reduced down to one set without any interesting or “Central Park Zoo”-like features. There isn’t much here to justify why the film’s set in New York instead of, say, Detroit, or Washington, DC, or San Francisco. The movie does have one memorable location, the inside of Newt’s briefcase, but by its nature as a pocket dimension in a piece of luggage, it could literally be anywhere. This is a real shame, as Hogwarts in the previous films had a lot more personality, and much more going for it visually than the same-old grey streets, buildings, lampposts, people…

The plot of the film is also disappointing, because it has three, and only one of them really works. That one is the one we expected to see, Newt Scamander adventuring across New York City with a muggle buddy (wait, sorry, no-maj [and who in their right minds thought, “that’s the American slang,” when only a Brit could say “no-maj” with a straight face?]), capturing fantastic beasts and being generally charming. It works, really, really well. If I judged the movie on just that story, I’d probably give it six identical briefcases out of seven, but it’s not alone. The second plot is less interesting, dealing with the magical bureaucracy of the United States investigating a scary monster wreaking havoc across New York, while generally being mismanaged sticks-in-the-mud. The third focuses on the New Salem Philanthropic Society, effectively the anti-magic KKK, proselytizing in the streets, teaching incredibly graphic songs about killing witches to small children, and harassing the publishers of newspapers for no good reason. These plots connect, but only for brief moments until the beginning of the third act, which leaves the movie tonally confused, and the audience questioning the purpose of whole scenes.

This isn’t helped in any way by the script, which is usually fine, but dips into stilted exposition way too often. Did I really need to know, for example, that Newt Scamander has a really cool brother? Did that line absolutely need to be the result of bad hearing in the middle of somebody’s arrest? There is also a character who seems to exist exclusively to give Newt’s no-maj (ughh) buddy a love interest, and she really bugs me. All she does is give this guy the bedroom eyes, and bake pastries with magic. Not cool.

The movie is also beset by logical issues. Many of these are intense spoilers, and I will therefore leave them unsaid, but let it be known that I have myriad questions, and only a handful of disappointing answers.

None of these issues really sink the movie, though, and there is much fun to be had during it. Just don’t expect another Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ll probably end up seeing all four of the greenlit-before-the-premiere sequels, especially because of the awesome surprise villain from the end. I give the movie four-and-a-half unrealistically heavy silver egg shells out of seven.

At least it’s better than The Cursed Child, amirite?

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