I used to be a big Harry Potter fan. I was gifted the first book by both my aunt and grandma when I was 6, and some of the few happy memories that I have of my family pre-divorce are of my dad reading the first three books to me. Together with the film adaptations being released every few years, I was in love with this universe. At least until 2007. After the books finished, my enthusiasm for the series waned. The story was over, and I found that I didn’t like David Yates’ entries in the film series.
So when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, I was completely apathetic to its existence. David Yates was back to direct a Harry Potter prequel that Warner Brothers wanted to become a series. OK, whatever. When the first trailer was in front of a number of movies I saw in theaters, I had the same reaction.
Even the reveal that Grindelwald and Dumbledore would eventually be characters in the series didn’t elicit any interest. As for Johnny Depp’s casting… I’ll get to that in a bit.
When I did go to see Fantastic Beasts, I had heard good things from a couple friends and early reviews. So I managed to have a little curiosity by the time the movie started.
As the film opens, the first thing you hear is a take on the iconic “Hedwig’s Theme”. Thematically it doesn’t make much sense for that theme to be in this movie without any of the Harry Potter characters present, but those few seconds of music are so effective in conveying the tone and world of Harry Potter that I understand why they couldn’t resist putting it into this movie.
For a second, the movie had me.
And then we get a blink-and-you’ll-miss-vital-information montage of newspaper headlines detailing Grindelwald’s shenanigans and the wizarding world’s fear of him. We also see a very brief scene outside of a castle where Grindelwald attacks a bunch of wizards.
Some of you may be asking who the hell Grindelwald is. And that’s the problem with this opening. Unless you have read the books or kept up on Pottermore (a website run by J.K. Rowling that explores and expands the wizarding world), the name Grindelwald doesn’t mean anything to you. There’s no establishment in this opening of who Grindelwald is as a character, or why he is supposedly a menace to the wizarding world.
The brief attack that we see doesn’t do anything to help because there is no clear reason or motivation behind it. We don’t know why the attack happens. It also isn’t made clear that the strange-looking wizard in the opening even is Grindelwald.
If this opening had taken its time with establishing and explaining who Grindelwald is and his issues with the wizarding world’s governments, it would have been a more effective introduction to Fantastic Beasts‘ universe.
Thankfully, the movie manages to survive the confusion of its opening and brings us to the main setting of our story: 1926 New York. This is one of the movie’s traits that I loved. The period setting is used quite well and serves as an interesting contrast to the more timeless Hogwarts setting of the Harry Potter series.
We are then introduced to our lead characters. Our many lead characters.
Newt is an oddball that loves magical creatures and wants to educate others about them. He carries a menagerie of the creatures in his suitcase, and hijinks ensue throughout the film as a few escape.
Tina is a recently-demoted Auror (wizard police) that wants to use Newt to get reinstated, but eventually comes round to him after her own government nearly executes her for associating with Newt.
Jacob is a non-wizarding person/muggle/no-maj who just wants to start a bakery, but is nearly foiled by accidentally meeting and switching suitcases with Newt.
There’s also Credence, a kid who lives with an extremist nutjob that beats him with a belt every time he misbehaves.
Oh, and there’s Tina’s sister, Queenie, who can read minds and has a sort-of romance with Jacob even though it’s “forbidden”.
And I almost forgot Graves, an Auror/wizard police guy who is investigating the appearance of a destructive force known as an Obscurus. He knows its source is someone that lives with Credence, so naturally he manipulates Credence into helping with the promise of eventually freeing him from the extremist nutjob.
If you are confused, that’s OK. The pacing of this film is so strange that it manages to both move slow and throw too much information at you at the same time. What it boils down to is that Newt and his friends are accused by the magical government of being responsible for a strange force that is wreaking havoc in New York City. Graves, one of the government officers, emotionally abuses an already-troubled child named Credence into helping him find the source of the magical force.
The movie takes way too long to get to that plot development, instead focusing on establishing Newt and his menagerie. The scenes where Newt shows off the creatures to Jacob, or where he has to recapture the escaped creatures throughout the city, are charming enough. But they feel like a distraction from the story that Fantastic Beasts really wants to tell.
It is later explained to us that the magical force/Obscurus is a manifestation of magical power that comes from young wizards and witches who are forced to hide their powers. This is the exact moment where Fantastic Beasts becomes an interesting story. The concept of a literal representation of all the negative thoughts and feelings associated with concealing your own identity is an idea that would have fit right in with the Harry Potter series.
Shortly after this explanation, Graves accuses Newt and Tina of conspiring with Grindelwald and nearly has them executed in a fascinatingly horrific way. Newt and Tina are led into a big white room, with a chair floating in the middle of a small pond. The idea is that you sit in the chair and watch your life flash before you through the reflection of the pond. It’s a much more terrifying sequence than I think even the filmmakers realized.
And I kind of loved it, despite the lack of logic behind Graves having the authority to make that decision without needing anyone else’s approval.
While all of this is happening, Graves soon discovers that Credence is in fact the source of the Obscurus, and manages to piss Credence off enough to let the Obscurus loose in the city.
After some chasing around, we eventually get to a scene where Credence is confronted by Newt, Graves, and Tina. Newt and Tina desperately try to talk Credence down, and very nearly succeed in doing so.
But then the wizard police show up and kill Credence.
Credence is supposedly back in the sequel so he’s probably not dead.
Still, the movie presents this scene as the magical government killing a child. Graves begins a solid monologue about how the wizarding world is so concerned with concealing itself and its powers that they don’t know if they’re protecting themselves or muggles/no-majs.
The movie’s sudden focus on power and how it should be handled is still a little weird at this point, but this is the scene where we finally feel a sense of purpose to all of the wheel-spinning that has happened throughout the film. Graves is a villain, but one with a comprehensible and valid question: why is the wizarding world hiding from the non-magic world? Who is really benefitting the most from this? Is it worth killing for?
And just as these interesting questions are being asked, the movie nearly undoes itself with an incredibly ill-advised plot twist: Graves is revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise.
Not only does this reveal undo the nuance that Colin Farrell brings to Graves as a character, it also completely throws off the tone of the movie just as it had finally found a tone.
Farrell plays Graves as cold and manipulative, but there is still a sense that he is trying to serve the greater good. When he transforms into the Bowie-eyed albino caricature that Depp portrays, that nuance is gone. In less than 30 seconds, Depp transforms Graves/Grindelwald into a laughable excuse for a villain.
All of the interesting questions posed by Graves can no longer be considered because Grindelwald is such an outwardly, gleefully villainous character that nothing he says can be taken seriously. It is a confounding choice for a character meant to be persuasive and seductive enough to bring others to his cause. Farrell’s Graves had the persuasive part down, but Depp’s attempt at seduction is confusingly goofy.
For god’s sake, his last line is “Will we die, just a little?” No context at all, just a look at Newt, a creepy-in-the-wrong-way smile, and a very strange delivery.
The movie ends on an OK note with the wizard police reconstructing the city from the destruction caused by the Obscurus. But what should have been a triumphant moment of a Hollywood blockbuster literally undoing the destruction of its finale is undermined by the Grindelwald reveal.
As for the main four characters, they go their separate ways, but leave room for future encounters. Jacob gets his bakery, but still has to lose his memory of the wizarding world because of reasons. Newt leaves America to go write a book on magical creatures. Tina is back to being an Auror, and Queenie visits Jacob’s bakery.
Fantastic Beasts is a mess. But what shocked me the most after watching it was how frustrated I was by the Grindelwald reveal. I was frustrated because just before that point, the movie was working for me. Despite its many problems, I actually enjoyed this movie. I was not expecting that at all.
I sincerely hope that the next one is able to focus its story better than this one. The ideas presented in Fantastic Beasts regarding the magical government and hiding one’s identity are full of potential. Hopefully the strangely cartoonish Grindelwald doesn’t detract from those eventual storylines.