I walked into Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them expecting I might have a few problems. The first was a concern probably shared by many that I’d dub “The Hobbit Effect” – a concern that drawing five movies out of a very small piece of source material meant we were in for a slog of barely-there plot intended to keep drawing us to the franchise until we hit retirement. I’ve got good news and bad news on that one: clocking in at almost two and a half hours, Fantastic Beasts has no lack of story. In fact, it’s almost got two completely separate-feeling films crammed together, each of which had merits, but the combination of which felt jarring.
The first half, or what I’d call Film One, was pretty much what I expected from the first entry in this franchise. A lot of place-setting, to be sure, but with some wonderful merits. The first hour of the film mostly focuses on wizard Newt Scamander‘s (Eddie Redmayne) illegal import of a suitcase full of mystical creatures from all over the world into the United States. After a typical grabbed-the-wrong bag snafu, Scamander’s creatures accidentally escape into the city, and he enlists the help of a muggle, Jacob (Dan Fogler) and wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol) to track them down. This first half of the movie was full of some really great humor, for adults and likely especially for kids. I especially loved Fogler’s take on the “what is happening?” muggle pulled into Scamander’s world. You’d expect the fantastic beasts to be the focus of this film, and for the most part they are in this first half.
Then we have Film Two. This second half of the film is really dark in tone; surprisingly so for a film so light on its feet at the start. This back half of the movie focuses on a sort of cult-like group of humans who protest the presence of witches and wizards in their midst. They’re mostly laughed off as extremists, but when a magical incident takes the life of a prominent politician, their message gains more traction. It’s hard to say much else about this part of the film without giving way to spoilers, but this half is probably what frustrated me the most about Fantastic Beasts, because I felt like there was a movie I really wanted to see in there, but never quite got.
So, coming out of Fantastic Beasts, I’m honestly surprised to say: this film actually tried to do too much in the space of one movie. I liked the first half a lot, and there were concepts in the second half I really liked, but none of them had the room to breathe – lots of plot, not a lot of emotion or thought, crammed together too fast to really give its message enough weight. I think it could have lost a good 30 minutes off of the run time and saved some of the headier concepts for the second installment to really give them a chance to develop.
That brings me to the second problem I thought I’d have, but didn’t, with Fantastic Beasts: Eddie Redmayne. I know I’m probably completely alone on this, but he’s not an actor I’m usually a fan of. Here, though, I thought he was perfect; a little more restrained, shy, and measured than performances he’s given in the past. It felt a bit like his personal take on The Doctor from Doctor Who. Everyone in this film was well-cast, with the exception of a very small role that I won’t get into for fear of spoilers.
This movie definitely subverted my expectations – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. I imagine fans of the franchise will find enough here to rekindle their interest from the original series, but I can’t say it lives up to the unique feeling of the Harry Potter films. Fantastic Beasts straddles an interesting line between adult-oriented messaging and child-oriented world building, never completely committing to either camp, and as a result, never really hitting home as hard as it could on either side.