Written by Josh Sarnecky
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Plot Summary:
When several of magical zoologist Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) creatures escape in New York City, he must work with an unlikely team to capture the beasts and prevent them from revealing the existence of the wizarding community to the rest of world. Meanwhile, a mysterious government official (Colin Farrell) investigates the presence of a dark force in an anti-wizarding cult.
After producing seven books, eight movies, a two-part play, and an amusement park, the Harry Potter franchise has become one of the most successful intellectual properties of all time. Despite the impressive box office returns and sales numbers, fans could be forgiven for wondering whether the franchise has been milked dry. And given the less than stellar response to the Star Wars prequels, setting a spin-off series nearly seventy years before the events of the main series certainly could be considered a questionable creative decision. Fortunately, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them largely accomplishes the goals that all prequels/spin-offs should aspire to: capturing the magic of the original series, while also establishing an exciting new narrative that can stand on its own.
Despite taking place in a new location and time period, the setting of Fantastic Beasts feels more reminiscent of Harry Potter than one might expect. Even though the two series are set more than half a century apart, there’s a sense that the wizarding world hasn’t really changed much; the architecture, the technology, and spell casting are incredibly similar. These similarities are actually more of a strength than a weakness because they help create a sense of continuity with the previous films. Likewise, the differences in culture between the British wizarding world and the American wizarding world are noticeable enough that the setting feels distinct but not so dramatic that the world feels unfamiliar. The filmmakers’ choice to tweak rather than overhaul the wizarding world thus goes a long way in evoking the appeal of Harry Potter.
Similarly, the film displays a clear understanding that the success of the original series relied heavily on the strength of its characters. The Harry Potter franchise has always focused on misfits, including a muggle-born magical genius, an orphan raised by his horrible relatives, and a girl so odd that she’s nicknamed “Loony.” These characters were so enchanting and fleshed out that fans immediately fell in love with them and couldn’t wait to see where the books/movies would take them next. Fantastic Beasts emulates this formula by giving audiences a new team of socially deficient characters. Besides a protagonist more comfortable working with magical creatures than people, the film introduces viewers to a non-magical oddball, a disgraced officer, and a boundary-challenged mind reader. These characters are admittedly not as appealing as the original trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but they show plenty of promise in their first appearance. Newt, Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) all have the potential to become fan favorites because of their charming flaws and quirky personalities. They may not have the most memorable lines, but the main characters have tangible chemistry and have some truly enjoyable interactions.
The real stars of the movie, though, are the titular beasts. While the original series included some notable creatures, they rarely provided the same sense of amusement and wonder as these new animals. Each beast is memorable and sets up either wonderful comic relief or action. The animals truly earn the title of fantastic and are perhaps the most magical element of the movie. The film is at its best when the focus is on these creatures and their relationships with Newt, so it’s somewhat unfortunate that there are so many other plots in play.
From the film’s opening moments, the movie makes it abundantly clear that this story is about much more than magical creatures on the loose. Sadly, there are just too many plots that are not sufficiently integrated into the overall narrative, or fail to garner enough interest. In particular, the scenes involving Jon Voight’s Henry Shaw Sr. and his sons appear only tangentially related to the rest of the movie. These characters and their storyline could have easily been cut from the film and would not have been missed.
Meanwhile, the storyline involving the New Salem Philanthropic Society and Credence Barebone’s (Ezra Miller) partnership with Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) does not feel particularly relevant until the film’s climax. While Credence’s struggles certainly provide spectacle, drama, and some interesting commentary on real-world issues, they may have been better suited for a sequel in which they were given more time to be explored. Moreover, this particular plotline adds an unnecessary amount of darkness to the tone and look of a film primarily amount a magical zoologist searching for his missing creatures. The content of this plotline is generally entertaining and engaging, but somewhat in conflict with the primary narrative. Hopefully, the questions raised in this plotline will be addressed in one of the four sequels to come.
Despite Fantastic Beast’s flaws, Harry Potter fans should definitely be excited for what’s to come with this series. It seems that this spinoff series will act more as a prequel than I originally expected, and will cover an element of Harry Potter mythos truly ripe for exploration. If future installments can successfully weave its fun new cast into this storyline only briefly touched upon in the original series, the future of the wizarding world may be brighter than we could have hoped. At the very least, Fantastic Beasts proves that J. K. Rowling still has plenty of magic left to share with us, and that the enchanted universe she created has much more to offer us than the Boy Who Lived.