DISCLAIMER: This review is completely spoiler free. You’re welcome.
For those who haven’t spent the better half of their lives obsessively consuming everything that JK Rowling touches, the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a mere blip on a greater pop culture radar. However, for its rabid fan base, the Harry Potter series verges on sacred. It is due to this sanctity that, upon learning of Rowling’s plans to write a 5-movie spinoff franchise, my most immediate reaction was a lot of incredulous yelling. How could she do this to us? She spent years carefully crafting an immersive experience, ending it in the most perfect way possible, only to pick it back up once things slowed down? And what for, when the original novels and film adaptations were so successful on their own? After my less than savory experience reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I truly believed that there was no way these movies could live up to their predecessors, and that this blatant attempt at pandering towards a loyal fan base would only serve to taint the franchise. However, though I walked into the theater with buttered popcorn and low expectations, I left pleasantly surprised. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, while not perfect, certainly had its gleaming moments.
The Good Stuff
- It wasn’t Harry Potter. Aside from a few verbal references and the fact that, well, they’re all wizards, there are hardly any similarities between the two franchises. While Harry Potter introduces the audience to the wizarding world through a lens of youthful excitement, the protagonists of FBAWTFT are all seasoned adults. The sense of wonder that was once associated with the existence of magic itself is thus normalized and replaced with a fascination over the newly discovered magical beasts. Once I made the conscious decision to judge the story on its own, separate from the series it stemmed from, I allowed it to become truly enjoyable and immersive. In addition, this is the only Harry Potter movie that is not an adaptation of a novel, so everyone is experiencing the story for the very first time.
- The characters. Newt Scamander, the protagonist, is awkward and charming and has a head of hair messy enough to make James Potter weep. Though a bit mumble-y and lacking in development, I am excited to return to this character over the course of the next 4 films. The movie also features strong and interesting plot-central female characters that aren’t relied on as the romantic interests, a common and refreshing feature in Rowling’s work.
- The “politics.” This movie focuses, in part, on the politics of the wizarding world, primarily in regard to the discrimination and tension between the magical and non-magical communities. This prequel gives historical context to the bigotry against mud-bloods/muggles that is alluded to in the original series, a recurring and important theme that is often overshadowed by grander conflict. The key differences between American and British wizards are explored for the first time as well, with hints of a rivalry between Hogwarts and Ilvermorny.
- The beasts. The magical creatures are cute and interesting and provide much-needed comic relief to balance out the more somber plotlines. Each creature has a distinct personality and you begin to fall in love with them just as much as their caretaker.
- The costuming. UGH, SO BEAUTIFUL, SO ELABORATE, SO HISTORICALLY ACCURATE. The muted color schemes were also enjoyably reminiscent of the previous Potter movies, even without the classic Hogwarts robes and Gryffindor scarves.
- The soundtrack. I’m terrible at talking about music so pour yourself a cup of tea and listen to it on Spotify, the score is incredible.
The Not-So-Good Stuff.
- Er…the plot. I know that I preached the importance of not comparing the two franchises, but the rushed plotlines starkly differ from the careful and deliberate story construction of the past movies. This film attempted to accomplish too much without letting any of the plotlines develop completely.
- The character development. While I thoroughly enjoyed the characters, their personalities, like the plot, were underdeveloped. However, with 4 more movies on the horizon, I have hope that JK Rowling won’t leave us hanging for long.
- The antagonists. Once again, the “villain” could have been more patently established. It was unclear at times who, or what, the wizards were fighting against, and a lot of attention was paid towards a “lesser” villain, making the final duel scene underwhelming. However, once again, I feel fairly certain that this will be expanded on within the next films.
- The beasts. While a welcomed departure from the typical focus on potions and spells, the creatures appeared more alien-like than magical. Their science fiction design stylistically separated the beasts from the rest of the setting, a clunky distraction in an otherwise seamless film.
In its entirety, I was impressed with this movie. I went into it ready to criticize and nitpick until there was nothing left but a mangled wizard carcass, but the film did not allow me to do so. The plot and characters were just distant enough from the original series to allow it to be evaluated on its own, without constant comparison. If you are a Harry Potter fan who, like me, wanted to fight JK Rowling for possibly ruining something sacred, you can relax. You don’t have to be angry anymore, sweet JK didn’t let us down.