Arts & CultureFilm & TV

Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ relies on nostalgia to counter a clumsy narrative

J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world captivated audiences young and old for decades with the Harry Potter series. The film adaptations, starting with Chris Colombus’ Sorcerer’s Stone, became the second highest grossing film series in history, with over $7.8 billion in tickets sold at the box office. Perhaps more remarkable was the film’s consistent level of quality; all eight of Harry’s onscreen adventures were great movies and avoided the pitfalls of so many other adaptations of young adult literature.

Now, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has arrived, with all of the series’ past successes looming large behind it. Based on a spin-off book published in 2001, the film is the first of a planned prequel series helmed by returning director David Yates and penned by Rowling herself. And while returning to the world of magic is exhilarating and nostalgic, Fantastic Beasts’ head-scratching story decisions and messy final act will leave many unsatisfied.

Rowling’s screenplay follows an eccentric young British wizard named Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) who visits New York with a suitcase full of… well, fantastic beasts, hoping to find them a new home. Naturally, all hell breaks loose when he accidentally switches cases with a muggle (called a “No-Maj” by American wizards) who promptly loses control on the case’s contents and haphazardly releases several of them into the city.

Scamander teams up with a recently demoted auror (Katherine Waterston) and the No-Maj himself (Dan Fogler) to recover the creatures before they wreck havoc. Meanwhile, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) races to discover the cause behind several mysterious, destructive accidents throughout the city.

Describing this narrative without using the word “overstuffed” would be disingenuous. Rowling tries to shoehorn in far too many subplots, to the point at which the twists near the end (and there are a few) become thoroughly predictable. In the most egregious example, one character’s actions become more and more unhinged, so that the character’s identity as the true villain of the story in the final 10 minutes isn’t even surprising.

Rowling writes herself into corners pretty consistently as well. The result is a final act that seems to exist only to tie up the film’s numerous loose ends. It does so in a pretty unsatisfying manner. One change in a character’s future is reduced to a single line of dialogue in the final scene, a choice that feels at once lazy and half-assed.

The film really shines, however, when it treats the audience to peeks into the American wizarding world. The Harry Potter series is already known for its visual extravagance, and while Yates’ commitment to muted realism hinders some of the wonder, Rowling’s imagination is still on full display here. Scamander’s suitcase, which is really a gigantic complex used to house his creatures, is a wonderful creation, as are the titular beasts themselves. Yates and Rowling build a series of exciting set pieces around them to great effect.

But these sights and sounds will be infinitely more interesting to those who are already fans of the universe. That’s an issue when the narrative is this weak. Try as it might, Fantastic Beasts and its filmmakers can’t seem to escape the clichés and pitfalls of the Hollywood blockbuster. The result is a beautiful, but distinctly flawed distraction, and a substantial waste of potential. Mischief mismanaged.

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Dana Alston

Dana Alston

Dana Alston is an Associate Arts & Culture Editor from San Jose, CA. He writes about film, music, and television. Paul Thomas Anderson is his one true god.

You can follow his meme-endorsed social media ramblings @AlstonDalston on Twitter or Letterboxd, or shoot him some eloquent hate mail at [email protected]