Kind of too late for a spoiler-free review, but if you don’t want spoilers then you know what’s good for you.
It feels hard to enjoy a movie when you get there late with your friends and the only seats left are in the very front row—especially an action-fantasy blockbuster like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In retrospect, Fantastic Beasts was cool and I enjoyed it, but the first time watching it I kind of felt like the pacing was a little too fast. I didn’t hear the names of most of the creatures, and I couldn’t keep track of the characters, either. At least not as much as I would have liked to.
There is a lot to like about Fantastic Beasts. The action and special effects are literally jaw-dropping. You want every subplot to be fleshed out ten times more than it was. You get tantalizing hints about MACUSA and the American wizarding community and the Second Salemers and you need to know what’s going on.
So what is going on? Newt Scamander, a magizoologist with a case full of magical creatures, arrives in New York City at exactly the wrong time. The Second Salemers are campaigning to expose the wizarding world, and a mysterious monster is creating havoc in No-maj (Muggle) neighborhoods. When a suitcase mix-up with unsuspecting No-Maj Jacob Kolowski leads to several of Newt’s specimens escaping, Newt and his beloved creatures take the blame for the havoc. Newt, himself a misfit, has to collect the escaped creatures, and the only people helping him are Kolowski and two misfit witches, Tina and Queenie Goldstein. In typical J.K. Rowling fashion, it’s them versus the world. Fantastic Beasts breaks the Potter mold with having a Muggle character who did not disappoint as one of the protagonists and with astonishing magical creatures being the concern of the leads.
Newt Scamander, don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy, but he doesn’t really stand out compared to the other characters. He’s quiet. He’s awkward but his awkwardness doesn’t draw attention to itself. He is pretty cute, though, and not just for his looks. And, predictably, he prefers the company of animals to people. Someone wrote a very interesting article about how Newt breaks away from male stereotypes, so after having read that his character made a lot more sense. But yeah, Newt is different. My favorite scenes for Newt were when MACUSA impounded his briefcase and his interrogation with Graves. The part where I related to him the most was when he hid under the covers, fully-dressed, in the guestroom at the Goldsteins’ apartment until after Tina had said goodnight, and then he snuck down into his magic briefcase.
Tina Goldstein didn’t make a huge impression on me either. Yes, I got that she was trying to redeem herself to her former employers but she was a bit of a doormat (and seriously, Tina, the wizarding world needs more vigilantes. You don’t have to work for those jerks). I also felt like Queenie was a little over-the-top–except when she went to get Newt’s briefcase and rescue the squad. She was totally professional about that. I also liked the scene with her and Jacob on the roof. The film was not quite as clear about Queenie being a Legilimens. I had the impression from reading the Potter books that Legilimency was a learned art rather than a magical gift the way Fantastic Beasts portrays it. But it added an interesting depth to Queenie’s character.
The human who really stole the show when I watched Fantastic Beasts was Jacob Kolowski. He’s stuck in a canning factory but wants to open a bakery (something relatable, right?) and then he goes on this fantastic adventure. I think there might have been a way to keep him from having his memory wiped, but he went back voluntarily…and Newt pulled through for him fabulously. Newt is the fictional character of the year, just for what he did for Jacob. And there’s some hope he’ll remember, with Queenie coming around to the bakery. Jacob’s teamwork with Newt is fabulous and funny—the zoo scene was my favorite part.
So here’s my take on the massive spoiler: not to really ruin things for you, but the whole Fantastic Beasts saga might actually be just Newt vs. Grindelwald. In the worst case scenario, the actual beasts might be playing more or less second fiddle, but that’s why you shouldn’t think about it too much. While it was a cool reveal, I had actually enjoyed Graves’ character and him being Grindelwald kind of ruined it for me. Graves was just so…complex. Cunning. Really great to watch. I wanted him to be just a subversive or even one of Grindelwald’s agents. But on the other hand, you can expect that I will do a whole Hermione Granger on Grindelwald in the future because the implications are fascinating.
I wish we’d seen more of MACUSA building. MACUSA’s methods of execution are creepy and the executioners wearing lab coats didn’t help at all. I think the MACUSA president, Seraphina Picary is cool, misguided but cool, and she had great fashion sense. As much as the film was about wizarding-muggle relations it didn’t actually confront or resolve the issue that much. The Second Salemers are creepy but I feel like their plot arc was left hanging. And Credence—oh poor Credence! He’s got a big mouth and an ugly haircut and he is so insecure but you know that between the Salemers and Graves he is just in a really bad situation. He didn’t deserve to die.
Let’s talk about the actual fantastic beasts. My three favorites were the bowtruckle, the niffler, and the thunderbird. Pickett the bowtruckle is irresistible and expressive and I love how Newt just lets him ride behind his coat lapel.
I’m not a huge fan of the thunderbird having six wings but I couldn’t help silently cheering when Newt announced that Frank’s native habitat was in my second home state of Arizona.
And that niffler—I have always loved nifflers since reading about them in the Harry Potter books. The niffler onscreen didn’t turn out quite the way I imagined it. But the niffler’s antics are a riot to watch.
So there you have it. I’ve finally seen Fantastic Beasts. Did I enjoy returning to the Wizarding World? Well, it had its moments. I’m not a huge fan of the Harry Potter movies as compared to the books. But the moment I really felt like I was ‘back’ was when Newt did ‘Alohomora‘ on the bank vault. I can’t say Fantastic Beasts lived up quite either to my expectations or the hype. It’s not my favorite movie and I liked Doctor Strange better. But it was fun and definitely worth watching. It’s a great film for what we got. And of course the online fandom for this film is just warming up.