Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a certifiable hit. The film has pulled in over US$717,000,000 at the box office and is also a hit with critics, scoring 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m a fan of the ‘Harry Potter’ series and went in to the film excited to see how it expanded the canon and J.K. Rowling’s mythology.
However, upon leaving the cinema my friends and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the film wasn’t very good. While it would be a bit glib to say that Fantastic Beasts lacked magic, that doesn’t make the sentiment any less true.
The film suffers from several issues: David Yates’s direction is drab, the plot is a confusing mess, and the over-reliance on CGI (questionably done CGI at that) worked against Fantastic Beasts. But the film’s most troubling issue is its protagonist.
Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first story written exclusively for the screen, and it’s a very different kind of story than the seven Harry Potter novels. Those stories all had a more languid pace, which was acceptable because they each unfold over the course of a school year. There was plenty of time to let the narrative breathe, and allow characters to grow. In Fantastic Beasts, most of the action takes place over the course of a single day. It is a whirlwind that raises a myriad of questions about its characters. Who are these people, and what makes them tick? These are fairly fundamental questions, and two and a bit hours later, we’re still no closer to answering them.
The movie filled in lots of blanks about magical culture in America, but it neglected to tell a proper story about its main characters. However, the biggest blank left unfilled is Newt Scamander himself. The film reveals a scant shadow of his backstory, but it was no more than a few hints at future installments. This wearying effort, to set up a huge ongoing narrative at the expense of the current one really irked me, it’s almost as if the filmmakers spent so much time laying the foundations for future films that they forgot to make a proper one.
At films end we know Newt’s brother was a war hero. We are aware of Newt’s work with dragons. But Albus Dumbledore’s fondness for him was no more relevant to this movie than Newt’s history with Leta Lestrange. He’s at best a tangential character to the larger story Rowling is building up to: Grindelwald. Newt’s unlikely heroism will hopefully work in his favour, but Potter fans already know that Dumbledore will defeat Grindelwald in 1945. Unless, of course, that isn’t the truth. Remember it is Rowling’s story to fiddle with or embellish as she sees fit.
But after getting through the fantastically confusing narrative slog that the film presents us with, it would appear that Grindelwald is just as tangential to Newt Scamander. Newt’s arc in the movie is relatively small. He ends the film pretty much the same wizard he was at the beginning. Yes, he now has a tentative romantic interest, and he helped arrest Grindelwald. But what does that mean to the core of Newt’s being? Your guess is as good as mine.
But even when you take the macro-level storytelling out of the equation, Newt is a frustrating guy to watch. Newt’s detachment makes him uninteresting. He’s also a fairly awful ‘magizoologist’ – when his beasts get loose in New York, he doesn’t seem to be terribly motivated to recapture them or that concerned for their well-being. This character/narrative choice doesn’t exactly rocket the movie’s already tedious plot into high gear. Even in the clip below, Tina Goldstein has to prod him to get off his ass and recapture his beasts.
And then there’s Eddie Redmayne’s performance itself. Redmayne plays (or should we say underplays) Scamander as a hapless, shy, gratingly twitchy wizard. That’s not a criticism, per se — Rowling has asserted that all the heroes in her writings are “set apart, stigmatized, or othered”. The socially awkward outcast Newt certainly fits the bill, but one can only take so much mumbled dialogue and averted gazes before you start to wonder why they’re giving this guy all the close-ups. He comes across as transparent, a movie star drained of his natural charisma and ability to create a starring role. You know your movie is in trouble when your supporting characters are infinitely more interesting and charismatic than your lead. Redmayne’s Newt is thinly written, nigh-impenetrable and void of character. Not the sort of lead you want carrying a franchise.
Apparently, producer David Heyman agrees. In an interview with Cinemablend, Heyman confirmed that Newt Scamander won’t always be at the centre of each movie, adding that Dumbledore, Credence, and Grindelwald will be the main players. This is good news. Warner Bros. sold me on the idea of Fantastic Beasts being a story we didn’t know yet. But all along, it appears that Newt’s story was just a back door into the Grindelwald saga. That’s fine, but the next movie needs to decide how the first film’s problematic protagonist will improve in the days ahead. Maybe he’ll be better as a supporting character. Honestly, that’s probably for the best.