The most recent installment of J.K. Rowling’s Wizard World of Harry Potter… I mean Wizarding World of Newt Scamander… comes through the bustling streets of a prohibition era Manhattan. In the fun, but lacking, 2+ hour movie, Rowling gives a valiant effort at bringing her first screenplay to life. On the surface, Fantastic Beasts uses all of the right magical ingredients that comprise the potion Rowling used to capture the hearts of millions of children (and children in adult bodies). Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much digging to realize the lack of depth this movie has across the board ranging from flat characters, a binary plot, and a hackneyed twist ending. For Harry Potter fans, specifically those who are fans of the movie series, this will be a fun, entertaining way to explore some of Rowling’s most ADHD moments when it comes to magical creatures, but ultimately the over reaching and under delivering movie will never rise past a background movie or ‘netflix and chill’ status. For those who are unfamiliar with the series… don’t start with this one.
For those who are huge Rowling fans, myself included, we have come to expect a lot from the witch that enchanted our hearts 16 years ago. To be honest, the potion formula is quite simple and only has 3 steps: (1) warm, inviting environment that I desire to be a part of, (2) amiable and loving friends that I wish I could have, and (3) most important, a life lesson or moment of self-actualization that the whole book/movie leads up to (and one that is typically outlined explicitly by a wise old wizard). Fantastic Beasts had one of these attributes maximum. FB delivered truly amazing creatures that live up to Rowling’s standard of creative genius. The characters and plot though… not so much. If you want your dose of Harry Potter ambiance, I think Fantastical Beasts is a great movie to flip on in the background to set the mood, but not something that is worth devoting any serious time too.
The characters offered up in Fantastic Beasts could be warm and loving, but they were executed terribly. It is clear that being an amazing author does not translate into being an amazing screenplay writer. In Rowling’s first book, only half a page was needed to introduce Mrs. Weasley and establish her as a warm, caring mother who you could not help but love. When the work was translated into a movie, (assumedly by a professional screenplay writer) the 15 second scene was able to bring about the same emotional response. Fantastic Beasts never comes close to matching this emotional depth for any of its characters, even when certain characters have time to be fleshed out. To be honest, there are a number of reasons why this is the case, but the most egregious is the general lack of direction for adults. When a quick to step Harry Potter and his loyal brother in arms Ronald Weasley jump into a foolhardy adventure it’s understandable, they are kids, that's what kids do. When a 20 something Newt, who fought on the Eastern Front of WWI as a dragon handler, recklessly rampages through one of the world’s largest metropolitan cities with a muggle and a general ignorance to the tense political scene around him… well it just doesn’t add up. Either Newt thinks very childishly (even younger than Harry when he was 15) or he is so obsessed with his animals nothing else really seems to matter. Nor is Porpentina seemingly in her right mind. She continually barges in on important meetings with news that is trivial or only half though through — this is what a child would do, not how an adult would handle the situation. Ultimately, the depth of the characters is lacking because what drives them is confusing. An important distinction is that their drive is not confusing because it is lacking, it is confusing because it is lacking the depth that comes with adulthood. Rowling’s adult characters seem to act on childish impulses with little concern to the larger picture, making her characters not feel real and when they don’t feel real they don’t connect.
Circling back around to Newt’s character, it also leaves the biggest holes in the plot. Is Newt childish or is he just too obsessed with his animals, like Hagrid, to take anything else into account? That is the question I am asking myself when we reach this pivotal point in the movie where the stories cross and Newt is dragged into the villain's plot. This abrupt switch from catching all the magical animals to saving an orphan child is quite jarring and my question quickly turns from ‘is Newt a child or animal lover?’ to — why is Newt the guy in on the action here? Why does he feel obliged to get involved with the obscurus? And when did that become an animal? I thought it was a parasite that developed when magic was suppressed in children? Did I get this right, you are telling me the childish protagonist, who is socially awkward and lacking in emotional intelligence is now this rejected child’s only emotionally stable life line?? And then I stop asking questions and resign this to a poorly developed plot. Rowling tends to have remarkable plots that teach life lessons and at their best reveal moments of self actualization. She is known for her foreshadowing dripped throughout the pages, and unforeseeable plot twists. Fantastic Beasts was none of that, the foreshadowing was overt to the point of being clumsy, the plot twist of Grindelwald was obvious (was I supposed to believe Johnny Depp was not going to show back up? Really?)and when the two stories merged it was awkward and painful and I still really didn’t care anything about any of the characters**. In the end, this would be on par with most of the action Marvel movies I binge watch, but not something I was expecting from Rowling. Rowling helped guide me to important life lessons, not simply provide a half baked 2 hour time block of entertainment.
Taking a step back, my criticism may be unwarranted. Maybe Rowling is not going for those hard hitting plots, and characters like she once was… Maybe she just enjoys creating amazing fantasy creatures and rolling in piles of money. I wouldn’t know her current aspirations, I am not one of those groopies who stalks her blogs, her twitter, and her house — I only do that with Emma Watson — What I do know is that even now when I re-read HP or even watch the movies, I am brought back to the point in time when I first read them, and I have the conflicting feeling that C.S. Lewis best described as the fight of Nostalgia and Joy. Nostalgia is that homesick feeling that is also a warm embrace, it keeps you longing to relive that moment in the past. While Joy is its counterpart, and is a moment remembered in the past but is always pointing forward to bigger and better things. Rowling has created that 7 times for me throughout her books and 8 with her movies, Fantastic Beasts did not. It did not mean Fantastic Beasts was bad, it was just not special. I will wait for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts with baited breath, while binge watching the original 8 HP movies.
(If you see typos its a live draft… leave me alone grammar natzis=D)
** Side note: The only character I did care about, the orphan kid, Credence, who was beat and duped and then killed … Are we really OK just passing over the fact this kid was more or less gunned down wizard style? Really? Last time I checked a Harry Potter book did not take death with such a light triste — maybe Newt can’t emotionally connect enough to realize this was a sad moment? Cedric’s death led to a self actualizing lecture from Dumbledore, Dumbledore’s death resulted in a huge event and multiple children crying as they closed the 6th book, even Hedwig’s death set the tone for the 7th book. Credence death was just filling in a poorly structured plot hole, he happened to die and a leaf happened to fall.