Fantastic Beasts’ title card may bear the same familiar font and sweeping melody of its big brother, but the film is a far cry from Harry Potter. For one, it takes place in 1920s New York; a more grimy, unromanticized version than we’re used to. This New York is saturated in a general unease with the wizarding community, rather than the embracing of magic seen in the Harry Potter franchise, and thus each wizard and witch is forced into hiding, unable to reveal themselves under the judgement of the No-Maj (America’s less-than-subtle equivalent of a Muggle). So when Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist wonderfully realised by Eddie Redmayne, inadvertently lets loose an array of creatures, or, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, to run amok in the city, you can imagine the chaos it would cause.
And sure, it does cause chaos, but to what effect? Fantastic Beasts takes a while to get going – penned by JK Rowling herself, it’s a film composed of two major plotlines: the escape and subsequent capture of Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, and the concept of an Obscurus and its relation to the leading members of the Second Salem (an organisation keen on stamping out magic and exposing magicians). Sadly, the plotline the film adopts as its title is both the least interesting and the least relevant of the two.
The film plunges straight into action without first establishing character motivations or defining a significant threat that the protagonists face. A mole-like creature called a Niffler with an affinity for treasure, easily the film’s most memorable critter, escapes from Scamander’s case to provoke an entertaining sequence in which Scamander scurries around a bank looking for it. Here, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an endearingly bumbling No-Maj who’s needed as the audience’s perspective. After a brief(case) mix-up, he accidentally involves himself in the wizarding world, much to the disdain of Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a demoted Auror (investigator of crimes related to the Dark Arts). We’re not sure why Scamander’s in New York, nor the consequences of letting the Niffler loose, and so these opening few scenes lack significance if not entertainment, stripping the film of any momentum. When the main protagonists of Scamander, Tina and Kowalski involve themselves with one another, such as during a dinner scene at Tina’s residence, it comes across as unimportant – there’s simply no driving force behind it all.
We are introduced to The Second Salem, a magic-hating organisation, but it’s not made clearer until the film’s second act how exactly they’re important to the story. Bluntly put, the pacing is dreadful. It takes too long to learn how this plotline interacts with the main protagonists, and when it does, it just casts the realisation that there wasn’t much point to the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ storyline in the first place. That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Eddie Redmayne attempt to woo a weird rhino-esque creature with an unorthodox mating display in order to capture it, but the scenes lack substance, and are, surprisingly, unmemorable. There’s no moments of wonder created akin to Harry’s first ride on the Hippogriff – most of the magic has seemingly died with the Potter saga.
Kowalski certainly seems taken aback, however, by his discovery of magic. His journey in Scamander’s briefcase is a highlight of the film, signalling how the divide between No-Maj and wizard needn’t be. Fantastic Beasts deals with these politics skillfully – it’s a simple oppressed-minority structure that applies to our world as much as it does the wizarding world, but is integrated well into the story and gives various scenes superb heft. Some of these scenes involve Percival Graves, played with manipulative assertion by Colin Farrell. He’s a senior Auror who works in league with Ezra Miller’s Credence, a member of the Second Salem, and his performance is brash and menacing. This contrasts well with Scamander’s inherent introversion, where Redmayne gives a certain charm to the character that would come across as cloying in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance isn’t the caricaturish loner either – he’s as introverted with humans as he is extroverted to his various creatures, supporting his affixion with the beasts. The roles in Fantastic Beasts are testament to JK Rowling’s knack for churning out interesting, believable characters – the one misstep is Tina Goldstein, her one-note, soapy characterisation wasted on Katherine Waterston’s talent.
Yet her writing, in this instance, doesn’t extend to a sophisticated or restrained plot. The film juggles too much – when it works, it’s awe-inspiring. But there’s an inordinate amount of loose plotlines, all culminating in an exhaustive final battle sequence. As the latest entry in the Wizarding World, it’s a disappointment rather than a failure. There are, however, moments of intrigue and awe to be had among its plodding narrative – Fantastic Beasts is a film jam-packed with superfluous storylines, but also a film jam-packed with mature themes and exciting new characters.