DISCLAIMER: Any and all opinions presented in this review are Jesse Hecht’s and Jesse Hecht’s alone. © Jesse Hecht C.R.E.A.T.I.V.E. 2016
I grew up reading the Harry Potter series of books. They took me to magical worlds that had fantastic (there’s that word again!), well-developed, fleshed out characters with so many magical spells and lore. The series ended, the movies wrapped up, and we all nestled in a cozy blanket of science fiction and Star Wars.
Magic is coming back, and some say it’s never left. Disney magic is always there, Doctor Strange is in the forefront with its magic, Fantastic Beasts is out now, and some weird, creepy magic is probably in some horror movie I won’t see.
Notice how I didn’t say that Fantastic Beasts doesn’t have magic. It really doesn’t, sadly. It doesn’t capture the magic that the other movies (and books) had, and that’s a real shame. In an era where nothing can surprise us anymore, this movie, sadly, continues that trend. The CGI is something we’ve all seen before (and it doesn’t even look realistic), the spells are just random white balls of white light (no specific color spells here, folks, and no wordy spells either), and the plot is trying to work one great movie out of two so-so movies.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an expert on magical beasts and houses several of them in a suitcase that is bigger on the inside. When he comes to America in the mid-1920s (no, this isn’t time travel, this film is set in the 20’s), he meets a No-Maj (muggle or non-magic person; human) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), and in a brilliant move that no one expected, their cases get switched and the beasts are now loose, so it’s up to Scamander and Kowalski (my new law firm) to catch them all (this sounds great! Look how “Pokemon Go!” turned out — wait a minute). Also, there’s a “Salem witch” plot and a political subplot with the magical higher-ups and No-Maj politics that takes up too much time and really goes nowhere.
J.K. Rowling wrote the script, and while it’s serviceable, it’s just too much to fit into a two-hour movie. We see all of these great beasts and cool locations (one of the best parts of the film is when we first go inside the suitcase) but the subplots drag the movie down. There is a subplot involving a new election that literally has nothing to do with the rest of the movie and could have been cut. The beasts plot was good, and the Salem witch plot was good, and given more time instead of the political portions of the film (magic and otherwise) they could have been great.
As always, there are twists and turns in the film and this is one of the “X character is actually Y character all along!” variety. The twist actually works in this case, not once, but twice and the second time actually shocked me in a pleasing way. Now, even though I did not like the film as much as I could have, I now want to see the sequel. What’s interesting about this film, to sidebar, is that it was based after a glossary of magical beasts (written by Rowling) with the same title. The name recognition is, truthfully, to get people in seats, and this film is just setup for the next one as well as the franchise. I know that most of the cast won’t probably show up again, and this seems to be for the best, as I’m now wanting to see what Rowling will do for the next (of five! Goodbye trilogies, hello cinematic universes!) films.
Regarding the cast, it’s a really mixed bag. Eddie Redmayne’s character is incredibly awkward to the point that not only does he not make eye contact with people, but he doesn’t even look at the camera. It’s like his face is stuck in a constant Picasso-esque three quarters view. He interacts with characters well, but the focus of the film, while on him, is not really about him. It’s about everything else: the beasts, the location, the other characters, anything but Newt Scamander. He does come to life more when around his beasts, and he does come around towards the end, but it’s not enough. There’s no character growth, no character change. He’s not really entertaining or anything, he’s just there. The plot starts with him, but anyone could have played this awkward, no eye-contact role. It’s a shame that Redmayne was even in this as he was incredible in The Theory of Everything and The Danish Girl and I just feel like his great talent is somewhat wasted here. He even could have made a good Dumbledore later on.
The supporting cast, luckily, is much better. Dan Folger as Jacob steals the show. In the Harry Potter books and movies, Muggles (No-Maj’s, whatever) were never really part of the spotlight, but now that that one is, I want to see more. He has such wonder and care of the creatures throughout the film, and he’s legitimately funny with his confusion and surprising at how quickly he picks up what’s going on in the magical world. He even has a story arc that I was genuinely interested in. He’s a great character and was one of the saving graces of the film.
The other members of the supporting cast are very good as well. Katherine Waterston plays the female lead, Porpentia Goldstein, and she comes off as similar to Redmayne, all look and no character. She does have more scenes that pop than Redmayne does, and she has that “character who can’t please their bosses” stereotype and a quarter of the film could have been cut if others listened to her. There is a small subplot with her and Redmayne that literally goes nowhere and keeps faking out, especially at the end.
Her character’s sister, Queenie (Fine Frenzy (wow, what a great name for this actress for this specific character)), is a blast. She’s fun, quirky, she can also read minds, and while this power is never put to great use (that would have been a great Chekhov’s Gun), it does allow for some poignant moments. Her character allows for some comedic relief, and when she first appears, her house is automated by magic, which is by far features some of the best effects in the film, showing that you don’t really need big, flashy effects to make a good scene.
On the less moral character side, Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller both are part of the political and Salem subplots, and are the best parts of them. Farrell plays Percival Graves, the head of security at MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America) and he is great with his role. Mysterious, dark, and you don’t know much about his alliances until the very end. Miller plays Credence, a young man adopted by an orphanage trying to bring back the Salem witch hunts. He is a pretty good character, but unfortunately falls into the emo-teen Kylo Ren loner character stereotype that we’ve just seen too often to care much about. He’s great in a role, but the character leaves so much to be desired. These two characters have great acting chemistry though, and the creepy relationship subtext between these characters is spot on, for those guessing.
I also must mention that there are some pretty weird cameos in this film. Jon Voight plays a politician that has no real place in this film except for the fact the Jon Voight probably wanted to be a part of a major franchise and got this role. Ron Perlman is great in the minor role that he has also as a goblin gangster, but he doesn’t get enough screentime to justify his place in the movie. There is also a third role that I wouldn’t mention, but it’s better than the other two, even though it basically makes another character’s “character” moot, so to speak.
This is another ho-hum CGI-fest spectacle film with a franchise tacked onto it. While I kind of liked this film and some of the casting, it really could have done more to expand the universe (shoutout to the DEFCON clock, loved that) and the characters surrounding it, and it could have dropped more hints of whats to come. It was a very “safe” film in that it didn’t really change anything, but then again it also didn’t wow the audience. I wouldn’t really recommend this film unless you are the die-hardiest of Harry Potter fans, but it’s safe to say that this film was not as “Fantastic” as the title says it was.