Why Didn’t This Work?: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

(Image Credit: Warner Bros.)

Three days ago, Warner Bros. released the final trailer for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the upcoming sequel to the 2016 film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. An extension of the Harry Potter franchise, re-dubbed J.K Rowling’s Wizarding World, these films follow the adventures of magizoologist and textbook author Newt Scamander in 1920s New York City. The first film in the prequel series focused on Scamander’s attempts to recollect his creatures while dodging the anti-magical New Salem Philanthropic Society as well arrest from the Magical Congress of the United States of America, believing Scamander to be working with the notorious Gellert Grindelwald, the preeminent dark wizard of the Potterverse before the rise of Lord Voldemort.

The new trailer checks all of the boxes to excite Potter fans, hitting familiar musical cues, showing the castle and grounds of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the first appearance of future school headmaster Albus Dumbledore as a young man, touching on but not explicitly dealing with his sexual attraction to the dark wizard Grindelwald. Upon watching the trailer, I had the same reaction I had to the first Fantastic Beasts film.

“Well, it looks pretty at least, but man am I bored.”

This is not simply an excuse to pick on a franchise that I don’t like. Like many people, I am a big fan of the Harry Potter series, reading all of the books (some of them twice) as well as watching all of the movies to the the point of quoting them verbatim. Despite the importance of Rowling’s literary and cinematic work for my worldview growing up, I can’t help but feel disappointed with the Fantastic Beasts series so far, dreading the upcoming sequel more than anticipating it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them isn’t without its strong points. As I said before, the film certainly looks nice, with the production and art design doing a wonderful job depicting 1920s New York City. Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, and Dan Fogler all do well in their supporting roles, with Sudol and Fogler having great chemistry as an unlikely couple. Colin Farrell makes a good antagonist as Percival Graves, later revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise, and would have been a more interesting and less problematic choice for the role than scumbag Johnny Depp.

But, films are not simply judged by their technical qualities, it is the story that matters most when it comes to assessing the quality of a movie. It is in the narrative itself that Fantastic Beasts falls short of the lofty standards set by the Harry Potter books and films. The filmmaker choice, structure of the story, and the main character Newt Scamander derail the potential of this prequel series, the original Fantastic Beasts a shell of the characters and stories it tries to invoke.

The Man in Charge

Director David Yates directed the first Fantastic Beasts film along with the upcoming sequel, becoming the go-to director for J.K. Rowling after helming the last four movies in the Potter franchise (Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows Part One and Two). Though all four of the Potter flicks directed by Yates were critical and commercial successes, “the magic” of the series came from previous directors rather than any inspired vision from Yates. The worldbuilding, setting up the characters, the familiar musical score (John Williams is a genius), and the almost tedious accuracy to the written material all occurred in the first two films directed by Christopher Columbus. The shift toward a darker, more adult tone came from subsequent directors Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell. Yates took over the director’s chair for half of the series, but by then the style and tone were set, leaving Yates little to do other than put the last three books on the screen.

One thing Yates excelled at, for better and worse, was trimming the books to fit to a standard run time, with the exception of Deathly Hallows being split into two films because of corporate greed to tell the entirety of the story. Yates streamlined the narrative and captured the essence of the last three books, particularly useful for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where most of the subplots were insufferable. In the Fantastic Beasts series, Yates appears to be doing the same thing, aiming for a condensed narrative to prevent an excessive run time. Though referencing a textbook from the Harry Potter universe and written by Rowling, Fantastic Beasts is an original story tangentially based on outside material. For full immersion into the new magical universe, the film (particularly the first in a series) needs to set up the world and its “rules.” The American magical body and New Salem society represent attempts to do this, but worldbuilding is shortchanged for the Grindelwald plot. Production design and art direction provide atmosphere and great visuals but not a clear understanding of this new magical setting. Yates’ preference for sleek narrative over engaging in a new world prevents Fantastic Beasts from reaching the standard of its predecessor

References Do Not Equal a Story

The film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a reference to a Hogwarts textbook within the Harry Potter universe, read by students of Care for Magical Creatures and released to us muggles along with Quidditch Through the Ages as supplemental material for obsessive fans (myself included). Grindelwald’s relationship and rivalry with Albus Dumbledore were subplots in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and a brief reference to Dumbledore in the film occurs specifically so fans can “ooh” and “ah” and make connections to the original Potter story. As a part of a prequel series, like many other iterations, the film often makes references to the material it was born out of to establish the importance of the events despite the fact that the outcome is already known.

Though connections need to be made, Fantastic Beasts falls into the trap of making references for the fans at the expense of its own narrative. With the failure to fully engage with worldbuilding, the movie hopes that callbacks to Potter material will satisfy fans, “getting” the obscurities being part of the fun. Because Dumbledore and Grindelwald are important for future events in the Harry Potter storyline, they are focal points in the series, receiving significant attention in the new marketing push and acting as “the real story” in a film titled “fantastic beasts.” Rather than a new story on the world of magic, Fantastic Beasts often seems like the Harry Potter appendices on-screen. Though nostalgia and shared continuity are ever more marketable, fitting Fantastic Beasts into the canon of Harry Potter limits the storytelling potential and leads to references for references sake, like that other time it worked so well.

Newt Scamander and the Failure to Capture Nostalgia

Fans of Fantastic Beasts may argue that this film works because it reminds you of watching or reading Harry Potter, transporting you to a world of magic and wonder where anything is possible. Indeed this is what the original Harry Potter series did, transported “you” to a magical world, a place where your uniqueness and special talents were appreciated and cultivated rather than being “different.” Someone who knows a lot more about books than I do mentioned that main characters in young adult series are often written as empty vessels to act as a surrogate for the reader, with Harry being “boring” compared to the more interesting supporting characters he reacts off of. Harry is a character for readers to project themselves , the reader or moviegoer experiencing a year at Hogwarts, playing Quidditch, and immersing in the magic.

Instead of a proxy for the viewer to latch onto, Fantastic Beasts centers around Newt Scamander, a known figure within the Potter universe with his own personality. This is not to simply criticize Scamander for his lack of charisma, as this seems to be part of the point of his character as someone who has difficulty interacting with people but is at home among his creatures (much of the internet suggests Scamander is on the autism spectrum). Scamander has his own mannerisms and is already an experienced wizard and an expert on magical creatures; the audience does not get to learn and develop with the character in the same manner as Harry. If Fogler’s muggle character were the focal point of the narrative and his being blindsided by the existence of magic the central plot before moving to Grindelwald, the film would be more compelling and properly invoke the feelings of nostalgia it attempts to benefit from. Instead, Fantastic Beasts opts for tangential connections to a beloved story and characters, failing to conjure a new and unique story while also ignoring the template the worked in the past.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents yet another attempt to commercialize nostalgia as well as cinematic continuity in the same manner as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film doesn’t make sense without familiarity with the Harry Potter franchise nor does it offer anything interesting to say about the wizarding world, preferring to capitalize on superficial callbacks and references. Producing something with the quality and cultural resonance of the Harry Potter franchise, something that speaks to and offers lessons for children as well as adults is certainly a difficult task, but Fantastic Beasts is definitely the wrong way to go about doing so. Instead of recapturing the magic, the sense of wonder for fans and the commercial success for the studio, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film that just doesn’t work, a movie with great potential and an opportunity to go in interesting directions that fails to do so.

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