Thoughts on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

My thoughts on the latest film within the Harry Potter universe were complex well before I ever ended up sitting down in the theater to see it.  Like most members of my generation, I was a huge fan of the series that preceded it.  So when they announced that they were doing a new film set in America during the 20s, I was excited.  There seemed so much potential there to expand the scope of the series and tell some really fantastic stories within it.

But then the reviews came out.  And they were not encouraging.  One went so far as to call it the Phantom Menace of the Harry Potter films.  And yet, the people I’d talked to who’d seen it seemed to by and large enjoy the film.  I had no idea what to make of it, so I decided I’d just have to see it to figure out which side was correct.

I never expected to find that both were.  Spoiler free thoughts to come after the break.

So since I already mentioned a review that compared it to The Phantom Menace, I should probably begin by making it very clear that for all its faults, this film is still enjoyable to watch.  In fact, there are a ton of moments within it that just hit the mark so hard and so cleanly that I kind of want to see the movie again just for those.

But that also gets at the biggest problem with the film – namely that so much of it feels almost like a collection of fun scenes that don’t necessarily build off of each other or contribute to the plot.  This is a problem that Phantom Menace had in spades, but unlike that film this one does benefit from the fact that the majority of those individual scenes are very fun on their own.  As much as it pains me to admit it, our main cast of characters are almost unnecessary to the plot for much of the film, and their contributions to the main conflict’s resolution are ancillary until almost the very end.  They’re very good characters, but it often feels like they’re just milling around waiting for their big contribution to the plot to happen.

Because of this disconnect between the main story and the people who should by all rights be its primary movers, you end up with this weird structure that almost feels like there are two plots going on.  There are a couple of times where they try to remind the audience of the tenuous links binding them together through a line of expository dialog, but these always fall flat simply because there’s no logical reason to expect that the conclusion of one will actually contribute to the conclusion of the other.  And it gets a little maddening because you can still see that they could have been unified if they’d just gone back over the script a few more times and tweaked the reasons for Newt to be in New York.

And yet for all of the seams that are very visibly showing their strained stitches… I still liked this movie.  Even with the mess of a plot, it remained compulsively watchable thanks to a very lively sense of fun in one half and a genuinely sinister atmosphere that’s been established in the other.  Other reviewers have stated that they felt the film spent too much time setting up its own sequels, and I can’t say that those setups didn’t make me want to see them.  Because if nothing else this film does sell you on the concept that the universe it exists in is one that’s ripe for telling all kinds of stories that we never got in the Harry Potter books.

In the end, I’m really not sure that this is enough for me truly recommend this film to anyone.  But at the same time, I can’t recommend anyone not go see it either.  Perhaps it will be vindicated by its follow-ups, or perhaps not, but in the end being a bad movie isn’t quite enough to kill the infectious charm of its pedigree.