Set about seventy years before Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them focuses on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the author of the textbook of the same name used by Hogwarts students during the time of Harry Potter, while he is still in the process of collecting and researching about magical creatures, and writing a book on them.
Intending to release a thunderbird in Arizona, Newt travels to the States. However, he is hindered from going to his destination, when a No-Maj (American magician term for Muggles, i.e. non-magical humans) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) unwittingly opens his magical suitcase, in which he houses many varieties of magical creatures. Some of these creatures escape, and Newt and Kowalski look for them around New York City to contain them. Along the way, they tangle with agents of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), particularly Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterstone) and the enigmatic Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).
I’ve always wished J.K. Rowling would write a new series of post-Hogwarts Harry Potter books, so that the character of Harry Potter can be defined and stand on his own as a hero outside of an association with Voldemort. Or, if not, a fresh story set in the Harry Potter universe focusing on another character. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a form of fulfillment of the second.
I’m not a very big Harry Potter fan, but still a fan nonetheless. I enjoyed the books, and I literally grew up with them (read The Sorcerer’s Stone in Grade 5 or 6, and read The Deathly Hollows in second year college). Though I don’t love the book series with the same intensity of most Potterheads, and though I firmly believe it had dropped the ball in pulling off becoming a masterpiece, it still is one of my favorite literary works. In addition, I’m also very fond of the movies; the Harry Potter films are consistently good, making the franchise one of the greatest in movie history, and they even improved many things from the book (for starters, though the seventh book is my least favorite in the series, I found The Deathly Hollows Part 2, though not necessarily my hands down choice for best Harry Potter movie, the most epic in the series). Such was my stand on Harry Potter coming into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
That’s probably why I get more considerably bothered and unforgiving of Harry Potter’s flaws than most fans. As a result, though many Potterheads lavishly praise Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as if it’s the most awesome thing in the world, I honestly couldn’t share the degree of their enthusiasm for it. It’s not necessarily a bad movie, it’s actually pretty fun. But, personally, I recognize aspects that I didn’t like and they lessened my enjoyment.
Anyway, there are many things to love about this movie. I love its flawless 1920’s atmosphere brought about by its first-rate production value. I love the exquisitely imaginative world-building that Rowling did for the movie, further enriching the Potterverse. I love the stunning concept design of the “fantastic beasts.” And, most significantly, I love Newt Scamander and Jacob Kowalski. They are very charming characters. Newt is a sanguine, awkward hero, winning the audience’s adoration and devotion effortlessly. Meanwhile, Jacob is an endearing sidekick as well as a perfect, lovable audience surrogate. Together, they make an awesome duo.
Actually, when the storyline centers on Newt and Jacob as a duo, and their interactions with the fantastic beasts, this movie is immensely delightful, funny, and exciting. The manner in which Newt re-captures the escaped creatures and when he sometimes wields them in battle gives the narrative an exciting Pokemon-ish flavor.
If Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had been all about Newt, Jacob, and the fantastic beasts, it would have been thoroughly fantastic. However, that isn’t the case. There’s also a storyline about the “Obscurus”, which is a dark, destructive force that bursts out from magical children who are stressfully suppressing their powers. I understand that the introduction of the concept supposedly hints of a connection to the death of Dumbledore’s sister. But it didn’t really intrigue me. In fact, for me, whenever the plot touches on the Obscurus, the movie gets messy and dumb (or I became more susceptible to notice messy and dumb details). In addition, the movie gets dark – and not the good, riveting kind of “dark.” Rather, it’s the kind of “dark” that sucks the joy out of the narrative in an ill-fitting, unwelcoming manner.
Other things that I didn’t like are the times the plot feels “stuffed” (though it’s somewhat forgivable because it does make me intrigued for future exploration of movies set on the Potterverse); the loud, flashy climactic battle that I found pretentious (again, it’s related to the Obscurus); plot conveniences that are annoyingly too convenient (which gives the narrative a bit of an inorganic, lazy storytelling flow); and some faltering with its mythology’s logic (also kind of forgivable because this also happens to Harry Potter movies/books).
But in the end, I still did have fun with this movie, and was made excited for the sequels (it was announced that Fantastic Beasts is going to be a five-part movie series). For all the flawed narrative executions that Rowling does, she still genuinely created a very intriguing fantasy world that has already made available the raw materials needed for tons of exciting tales. Who knows, the sequel may not turn out being “wonderful but sloppy” – which I found Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to be – and be just plain “wonderful.”