If you expect “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” to feel like a ninth Harry Potter movie you will probably be disappointed. Though set in the same universe as J.K. Rowling’s disgustingly successful (and rightfully so!) Harry Potter book series and the movie adaption thereof, “Fantastic Beasts” is the start of its own story. Despite the involvement of much the same people (director David Yates and editor Mark Day as well as producers David Heyman, Steve Kloves, Lionel Wigram and Joanne K. Rowling herself have been involved in multiple Harry Potter movies already) „Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them“ doesn’t reach the level of fascination and emotional engagement that the past eight Harry Potter movies amazed us with. But it is still refreshingly hopeful and leaves you giggling in your theatre seat more than you might have originally expected.
Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl, The Theory of Everything) gives us in Newt Scamander an unintentionally funny protagonist, as endearingly awkward as we know Redmayne’s characters to be. Together with Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, they make for a very likeable ensemble cast. As such, the main characters atone for a rather flat and in parts predictable storyline. Unfortunately, seeing as the straightforward main story takes up most of the screen time. The bright side about the movie not distracting with many side stories and subplots is that the few forays and detours all feel natural. Instead of pushing a half-hearted love story and excessive “man pain” scenes on us (think “Doctor Strange” or “Batman vs Superman”), we are presented with subtle romantic undertones, a convincing development of relationships and only hints at backstories that intrigue not distract.
The viewer accompanies British wizard Newt Scamander on his visit to New York. On his way to relocate an endangered creature in Arizona his plan gets intercepted by No-Maj (muggle/Non-Magical) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who accidentally acquires Newt’s magical suitcase full of magical creatures, accidentally sets some of them free in New York and more or less accidentally joins Newt on his mission to get them back. Meanwhile Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who works for the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) tries to bring them in since the import of magical beasts as well as the exposure of magic to No-Majs is illegal.
The movie makes you want more – not necessarily in that you want to find out what happens next, but instead to see more of the characters, to witness them evolve and flourish.
The special effects and 3D experience are beautiful and fascinating and succeed at transporting us to a convincingly magical 1920s New York. Be it Newt’s magical beasts and his magical suitcase, the Goldstein sister’s impromptu outfit changes, or intense fights and duels – special effects supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz have created some breathtaking magic.
While the movie succeeds on a visual and personal level, the effort to engage intellectually is visible but fruitless. Rowling’s socio-political metaphors have always been questionable at best and she continues on the same way in “Fantastic Beasts”. While Newt and Jacob try to catch Newt’s rescues the wizarding world has bigger things to worry about. An unknown magical force (a wizard? a beast?) rages through Salem and threatens to expose magic, a muggle organisation called New Salem Philanthropic Society wants to expose magic all the while Gellert Grindelwald, the most dangerous dark wizard of all time, has escaped and plans to expose magic, too. Without giving too much away – the MACUSA of course fails to keep all of these in check and countless muggles in New York are exposed to magic. Instead of watching the world descent into chaos Newt miraculously has the perfect solution and his damage control preserves the happy ending.
Now, in the Harry Potter books Rowling reconstructed systematic racism as a divide between pureblooded (meaning of magical descendance) and muggleborn (meaning of non-magical descendance) people. Her allegory feels futile (or maybe lacking cultural empathy; is she trying to show us how racism works and how dangerous it is or is she just using the suffering of people of colour to create an interesting story?) given that all the main characters are white.
She spins her allegory further in “Fantastic Beasts” but for that it seems to work even less. Here, she creates a divide between muggles and wizards. While a power imbalance between these groups would make sense as a prequel to what happens in the Harry Potter books it simply doesn’t work in the movie. Muggles are not inherently in a position of power over wizards. Not to mention that the plot of the movie in itself doesn’t work. If the NSPS (New Salem Philanthropic Society) poses such a threat to wizards why did no one simply erase their members’ memory of any magical encounter they might have witnessed (Yes, they can do that. The spell is called Obliviate and is mentioned frequently in the movie.)? Did no one in the history of magic ever find Newt’s magical cure-all before? Why didn’t he tell anyone of it given that magic exposure to muggles was such a world-wide problem?
However you look at it, “Fantastic Beasts” simply does not work as a socio-political metaphor of oppression. But, to be fair, the ordinary moviegoer might not be looking for one anyway.
“Fantastic Beasts” is a fantastical movie. The attention to detail – be it character details, visual details or side-plot details – is harmonious and beautiful. While the movie tries to be covertly sophisticated the viewer looking to be more intellectually engaged won’t find what they’re looking for. Would I call “Fantastic Beasts” a good movie? Sure. Is the movie entertaining? Definitely. Is the movie versatile enough to do more than just entertain? Meh, not really.
You can see the film at the CineStar Rostock Capitol in 3D or 2D, tickets start at 12€.