This isn’t a bad film. Far from it. Rowling’s screen-writing debut is crsip and sprinkled with witty one-liners, the stellar cast puts up a decent show and the CGI is delectable. But Fantastic Beasts does have its share of problems, the primary one being the plot.
Don’t get me wrong. Overall the story makes sense. Newt Scamander who has a passion for cryptozoological specimens and carries a zoo in his suitcase arrives in New York at a time where a mysterious force lurks and occasionally ravages the buildings. Tina is a failed Auror who’d do anything to get back her former job and prestige. Jacob Kowalski (is a No-Maj) who dreams of opening a bakery but has no collateral. Meanwhile Grindelwald’s (the Voldemort of another era) powers are growing and there is tension in the community which can escalate and expose the wizard folk to the non-magical majority. In the middle of this, some of Scamander’s magical creatures accidentally escape his suitcase and he must find them before he’s wrongly accused for the crimes he hasn’t done.
For the most part, the plot works, just like any other period-fantasy movie. But unlike Harry Potter which grew into a phenomenon, the film is pretty obvious about its aim to be another money-minting franchise to rival other high-grossing blockbusters. Some secrets are deliberately not revealed, some identities are only hinted-at, subplots are thrown in to make it obvious there are half-baked sequels lined-up, and some questions are partly answered to ensure that the audience remains curious and returns for the next four films in the series. Unlike the Harry Potter movies which are in a league of their own, Fantastic Beasts aspires not for innovation but box office success.
Okay. Let’s say, that is realistic. But it suffers from another fatal flaw: world building. Fantastic Beasts resembles exactly what Peter Jackson did by building on the success of Lord of the Rings and stretching the three-hundred page Hobbit to a spectacular CGI-drenched trilogy. The results were impressive yes, but it wasn’t as emotional as LOTR. Fantastic Beasts on its own is a pretty good film, but it doesn’t recreate the same magic Harry Potter did.
I guess a part of my problem with the film lies in the fact that this movie was based on an original screenplay and not a novel and hence the world building wasn’t as extensive or detailed as I’d have liked it to be. The magic of Hogwarts had its own history, its own folklore but here in New York, the Harry Potter world is only alluded at. We never catch a glimpse of the Illvermony school of magic, and baring a few, we don’t meet characters as commanding as Dumbledore or McGonagall or even Hadgrid. Johnny Depp’s Grindelward is only a cameo.
Coming to the dialogues, it is pretty obvious that it’s a debut screenplay, not a masterpiece. Some conversations are strained while others rely on clichés, humour stems from slapstick episodes. There is also some genuine fun, but that’s because of the impeccable performances by the actors who bring most of the forgettable characters to life.
Eddie Redmayne’s Newt is a delight. Quirky, introverted, somewhat autistic and mostly awkward but nice, he’s a marked contrast from the conventional hero protagonist we’ve seen repeated in countless fantasy flicks and is one of the film’s brightest points. Katherine Waterston’s Tina needs some work but between the two, there are some lovely moments. Her sister Queenie is easily more bewitching and would have benefited from a more prominent role except being customary eye candy and uncomfortably succumbing to the manic pixie dream girl trope. But perhaps it is the adorable and utterly non-magical Jacob Kowalski who delivers one of the most magical performances and almost steals the show from Newt’s zoo-in-a-suitcase.
Visual effects wise, the film is certainly mesmerizing in 3D, especially the sequence where Newt invites Kowalski for a free preview of his magical portable zoo. The beasts we encounter are certainly fantastic- some of them which were only mentioned in passing in Harry Potter finally get their five or ten seconds of fame here.
In short, the film is good but it might’ve been better if it had been a one-of-a-kind film with a more cohesive storyline. To draw a magical analogy, it is a phoenix trying to fly before even fluttering its wings. A brave attempt yes, but would have benefitted from some more practice and less ambition. Yes, this is the sort of film you’ll like, but not scour the net for fanfiction to read afterwards.
Fantastic Beasts is a film that will entice the non-magical folk who haven’t spent half their childhood growing up with Harry Potter. But for the diehard fans, it is mostly fun but not that fantastic.