Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tells two storylines that have nothing to do with one another. The first is about Newt Scamander, our lead character, who goes to America to return a magical creature to its natural habitat. The second is about a mysterious magical force that’s causing havoc around New York City and the Aurors’ attempts to stop it. Despite focusing on two disparate storylines, the movie barely justifies its running time of a little over two hours.
The much-anticipated prequel to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise is, in a word, pointless. Pointless because it doesn’t have a story worth telling or characters worth following. The lead hero of the film, Newt Scamander, is uninteresting and one-dimensional. Apart from his love of magical creatures, we don’t know anything else about him, and the film doesn’t bother to explore his character beyond that one trait. He’s not charming, funny, brave, cowardly, intelligent, dumb, or much of anything you can point out. His actions in the movie are the result of the script telling him to do things and not because it’s in his character to do so. He simply exists, like a cardboard cutout, saying lines when he has to and taking part of the action because he has to. To make things worse, Eddie Redmayne struggles to play his character, resorting to simply repeating his previous performances from his other films because… well, why not? He was nominated for Best Actor in the last two years (winning once), so repeating it for a third time should be good enough, right? Except it isn’t. It’s a tiresome charade at this point, inherent to the actor himself instead of the character. I can’t help but be reminded of his portrayal of Stephen Hawking and Einar Wegener, because that’s who Newt Scamander is. Right down to the facial expressions.
Still, it’s hard to blame Redmayne for Newt’s dullness and lack of character. After all, he is written that way. His purpose in the film is to simply describe each new magical creature and what it can do and how it looks like. He’s like a walking encyclopedia, and no, the film doesn’t manage to make that interesting at all. Early in the film some of the creatures manage to escape his magical suitcase, and the rest of the film is just following Newt with his hapless non-magical sidekick Jacob as they chase and recapture them.
But thankfully, there’s a second storyline happening elsewhere in the same city so the film can take a break from all the CGI creatures. We follow Graves as he tries to uncover a mysterious magical force that’s wreaking havoc in the city and killing people. He’s enlisted the help of Credence, an unfortunate young man who lives under the abuse of a cruel mistress that tries to spread awareness about the existence of witches. In stark contrast to Newt and Jacob’s adventures of capturing the beasts, this storyline is dark and violent. People get murdered, children get abused, and property gets destroyed. Every time the film cuts to this storyline, I get a little bit excited because it looks like it’s actually going somewhere. It has Aurors (the magical world’s equivalent of a police force) and an actual plot that’s slowly unfolding, whereas Newt and friends are just scrambling around getting the creatures back.
Eventually the two storylines converge, and the result is underwhelming, to put it mildly. Newt takes one look at a dead body and tells a room full of Aurors that the chaos is being caused by an Obscurial, which is the result of magical children who were forced to hide and contain their magic instead of learning how to control it. Their magic unleashes in the most disastruous way, which eventually kills them before they reach the age of ten. None of the Aurors believe him for some reason and they decide to put him in prison.
Of course, Newt and friends eventually escape, which coincides with the predictable reveal of who’s the cause of the Obscurial. Throughout the film Credence is accompanied by a little girl, who’s filmed and acted in a creepy, uneasy way to make you think that she’s the cause of all the chaos and murders. She fits the description of what an Obscurial is: a child of no more than ten years-old. Credence discovers a wand under her bed, and Graves even tells Credence that he had a vision of a little girl next to the Obscurial. The film tries so hard to make you think it’s her, but of course, it isn’t. It was Credence all along. Except it isn’t a surprise at all. Unless you weren’t paying too much attention, it’s difficult not to see that little twist coming.
When the climactic third act comes, it feels perfunctory. The film’s about to end now, so they have to end it with explosions and destruction. Whereas the Harry Potter films converged its storylines to provide a climax to its stories, Fantastic Beasts does it to cross-out a checklist of what you’re supposed to do in a big-budget fantasy film. It’s a fun scene, full of fantastic CGI, but it feels empty.
And that describes the film perfectly. It’s empty and pointless. All the wonderful CGI, lush production design, beautiful costumes, and exquisite cinematography can’t save a film that has a paper-thin plot and characters who aren’t developed. When Tina and Newt share an emotional goodbye at the end of the film, I felt confused instead of involved. Why would Tina care one bit about Newt in the first place? Not only did he almost get her killed, but he also has the personality of white rice. They barely even spoke throughout the film. There’s a sweet little romance between Jacob and Queenie, and they easily steal the film, but alas, it’s not enough.
Still, the artistry and craftsmanship presented in the film is endlessly impressive. If you’re going to watch a hollow but beautiful production, it can’t get any more beautiful than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It’s a pleasant and watchable experience that easily falls apart when even the barest scrutiny is placed on its plotting and characters. I also appreciated how they kept the fanservice to an absolute minimum. Name drops of ‘Hogwarts’ and ‘Albus Dumbledore’ are as far as the movie goes when referring to the Harry Potter franchise, which is great. Often prequels and sequels of mega-franchises overdo it in that department, so it’s refreshing to see this one deliberately scale it back.
One last thing. Something that irked me to no end is Newt Scamander’s suitcase full of magical creatures. Why Newt had to bring an entire zoo of creatures to America even though his only purpose was to release this one giant bird is idiotic and nonsensical. If he can magic a suitcase to contain several environments for the magical creatures, then surely he can make one that only contains the bird. But that’s not even the worst part. At one point Newt proclaims that his creatures are one-of-a-kind, some of which are ultra rare breeding pairs. And they’re all residing in that little suitcase, which in the course of the film is dropped, dragged, sat on, misplaced, confiscated, and almost destroyed at numerous points. When I travel to a foreign country with a suitcase full of my clothes, it’s like I’m carrying my entire lifeline with me in that bag. Newt, however, doesn’t feel the same way carrying a suitcase full of rare animals, which he claims to be so very passionate about. I have no idea what their plans are for the sequels, but I sincerely hope that it involes brand new characters.