“You’re an interesting man, Mr. Scamander.”
Despite its title, the most fantastic things in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them aren’t the beasts, but the people. As the latest offering from J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts is a charm, excelling when it’s allowed to be its own creature and falling short only when it’s forced to pay its franchise dues.
The beasts in question come out of the suitcase of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), and we follow along as he attempts to retrieve them all before they wreak too much havoc upon 1920s New York. The story is structured, in essence, like an RPG: Newt’s first, small quest leads to other overarching plots, and he gathers a small party along the way. There’s Tina (Katherine Waterston), an ambitious witch who knows she’s better than the job she’s in; Queenie (Alison Sudol), her mind-reading sister; and Jacob (Dan Fogler), a non-magical, would-be baker who gets taken along for the ride. They’re an appealing core team, to the point that the film is best when it accepts that it’s a romcom that happens to have magic in it. The action setpieces are thrilling, but the scenes that stay with you focus on the relationships between the characters. Adulthood doesn’t make a crush any less anxiety-inducing, or self-doubt less crippling, and Fogler and Waterston in particular play that earnestness well.
The larger stakes feature Colin Farrell as an ambiguously aligned magical bureaucrat, and Ezra Miller as the son of Samantha Morton, a “Second Salemer” intent upon sniffing out and destroying all magic. The acting is terrific (save for Jon Voight, who doesn’t seem to be in this movie for any particular reason), but the story loses steam as it ties into the larger Harry Potter legacy. It’s a shame, considering the lengths Fantastic Beasts goes to in order to distinguish itself. The setting is completely different, as are the characters and the beasts (which look more like Star Trek creations than anything we saw at Hogwarts), and even the music, which eschews John Williams’ familiar themes for cues that lean into the jazz music of the era.
It’s also unfortunate that the story features such heavy allegories about acceptance and inclusion when there’s ultimately not that much of it presented onscreen. There are only three characters of color, of which only one is given a name, and another barely counts. (I’ve never considered house elves as having any physical signifiers of race, though they are all light-skinned, so it was disorienting to see one — and only one — that looked noticeably different, like a Josephine Baker caricature.)
Fantastic Beasts would have worked fine as a single movie, but as things stand now, there are four more set to follow it. It’s strange insomuch as, while there are plot points left up in the air that would serve as an excuse for us to see Newt again, the movie seems to be setting us up for an entirely separate adventure, as evidenced by a certain cameo and recent casting announcements for the upcoming installments. It’s this awareness that ultimately keeps Fantastic Beasts from being great rather than good, as well as making it clear that the beasts are just a means to an end. Still, the movie is delightful in its best moments, serving as a reminder — like the best films of this year — simply to be good to each other.