I see no reason to be coy about this. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” did about as much for me as the book it was based on – which is to say I consider it supplemental material at best, and a needless footnote at worst. If you are absolutely dying to dive back into the Wizarding World (and I certainly sympathize if you are), I suppose you could do worse. But as far as being a standalone movie, I’m not sure it stacks up against a single entry in the main series.
Apart from a particularly silly Deus ex machina moment at the end, there’s nothing especially egregious about this movie. There’s just not a lot to write home about, either. And I find that troubling. I never thought I’d say that about any movie taking place in such an expertly crafted fictional setting as J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. Whereas previous entries were full of lively, quirky characters that made you feel as though the magical world was but a portkey away, this movie just has archetypes you’d find in a picture book. Look, mama! The funny fat man! Ohh, and there’s the bubbly love interest! And who could forget that lovable shy man who mumbles half his lines and loses all his pets?
Seriously, the greatest surprise of this film (besides the spoiler that shall not be named) is that Newt (Eddie Redmayne) is somehow the hero. When one person’s negligence is the crux of the entire plot, that character is typically not the lead. Can you imagine if George Bailey (James Stewart) had lost the deposit in “It’s a Wonderful Life” instead of Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell)? I would’ve encouraged him to jump off the bridge! But in this case, Uncle Billy is our leading man, and they slapped on an extra bumbling idiot – albeit an occasionally amusing one – for good measure. Oh, and there’s also some other side plot about an abusive mother and a William Randolph Hearst-type haphazardly crammed in there so that you can forget the only reason you’re still here is because Newt’s suitcase defies every law of logic imaginable. Because, y’know . . . villains!
And now we come to the part where the comment section erupts with such clever counters as “I’d like to see you do it!” or “This pleb doesn’t know anything about CGI!” But c’mon, people. The special effects in this movie left a lot to be desired. And I mean a lot. Full disclosure, I’ve only seen it on Blu-ray. But, frankly, the argument that you should’’t judge a movie because it doesn’t look as good on the small screen as it did the big one has never held much water with me. There are plenty of films that look just fine both. I frequently found myself distracted by how utterly ridiculous the actors must have felt blurting their lines out on a green screen as they mimed interacting with pure nonsense. And, no. We’re not even going to talk about that Erumpent mating dance. I refuse.
On paper, I can see how this would’ve looked like a good idea: showcase a menagerie of exotic creatures from the deepest depths of the lore and score a sweet franchise-extending deal in the process. What Rowling seemingly forgot this time around, however, were those otherworldly moments – Quidditch matches, the Triwizard Tournament, Harry’s first time using a Patronus (mine is a red squirrel, by the way) – that made her original works so magical. In “Fantastic Beasts,” we get exactly one of those moments when Newt shows Jacob around his suitcase. Sure, the case makes an infuriatingly small amount of sense and its rules seem to change as the plot demands, but this scene was still able to effectively recapture that same awe. Had there been a few more similar set pieces, this movie would’ve felt just a little more at home in the Rowling’s overall world.
So why give it three stars? Well, because it’s still technically Harry Potter. And as I said before, there’s nothing too terrible about it (still refusing to acknowledge the Erumpent). Though too few and far between, there are glimmers of the grandeur this series once knew. Like it or not, this is the closest we’re getting to the Wizarding World for a while – on the big screen, anyway. But most importantly, I just didn’t hate it. It was easy enough on the eyes and mind to hold my attention for (most of) its runtime. Ultimately, that’s more than I can say for most spin-offs.
Also, the nods to the other movies weren’t that bad, I guess. But did they really need David Yates to direct this? Dude’s gotta have better things to do. I mean, those last few Potter movies rocked, amiright? Hm? What’s that? You think I don’t have anything more to say? And now I’m just rambling to extend this review as far as I possibly can? Well, perhaps I’’l stretch it into four more reviews. I’m sure that couldn’t possibly go wrong.