I don’t normally review every new movie that comes out. I see most of them, or as many as I can, but the purview of this website is fairly specific, and most big movies – which have functional but utterly uninspired romantic subplots – simply aren’t worth bringing up. What I love is to be able to write about the truly great films I see each year, the ones that get love and romance really right: The Lobster, Love & Friendship, Hamilton, Southside With You, The Handmaiden, man this year was amazing. But every so often, I find a major studio film that botches its romantic aspects so thoroughly that I try to mention it when I can: Warcraft, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange. Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is on the latter list.
Now, it’s important to note: I don’t think Fantastic Beasts is a very good movie in the first place, but the romantic subplot – and the junk surrounding it – basically explain why I feel that way. Because it’s almost completely detached from the actual story of the film. There are three plots here that are jammed fairly haphazardly together. One of these stories is great – Katherine Waterston as a magical detective in a noir-tinged 1920s fantasy is brilliant; great casting, solid conflicts, cool thematic material, and strong exploration of the world. I have no complaints whatsoever about this section of the film. This was even better than I could have hoped. One of the three stories is neither great nor particularly bad, just a bunch of franchise-building mumbo-jumbo about Gellert Grindelwald that never sticks around long enough to make much of an impression.
But the third story is where Fantastic Beasts goes off the rails. It has nothing to do with the other two and no thematic resonance whatsoever, and yet it takes up the vast majority of the film’s runtime. In this one, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) brings a suitcase full of monsters to the United States, but a mix-up with no-maj schlub Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) ends up releasing a number of the beasts into the wilds of New York City. You could literally remove this story from the film wholesale without actually affecting the plot of the film, except for one final major emotional beat. And that beat is one of the low points of the film.
If you are opposed to minor spoilers about the climax of the film, skip to the next picture. In a way, that relationship between Kowalski and Queenie (Alison Sudol) forms the basis of the the emotional climax of Kowalski’s arc here. Forced to forget his adventure so that the NYC wizards could maintain their secrecy – though… not really forced; I still don’t really ‘get’ why they went through with it given that MACUSA specifically left them alone and unsupervised – Kowalski is giving up his chance at a real relationship with gorgeous flapper Queenie, and he’s doing so willingly. When he steps outside, he’ll forget that he ever knew her, and whatever burgeoning relationship was there will be gone forever.
Except… what relationship?! The two of them have, what, two conversations in the entire movie? And at least one of those conversations is her reading his mind and reacting to what she sees — while we, the audience, never have any idea of what that is. Literally the entire basis of their relationship is purposely left out of the movie.
So, how do I form an emotional connection to a relationship I never see developing between two characters who barely interact and don’t really affect the story? This is, again, one of the film’s biggest emotional turning points, but it comes seemingly out of nowhere, much like the very similar moment in this summer’s Warcraft. A more tightly focused film might have found time to remember the two of them in all the plot machinations, but Fantastic Beasts, again, jams three stories together without the strong core structure that kept the Harry Potter books and films on track regardless of the sprawl of each book’s yearlong, multi-hero plots.
This is not to slight Fogler or Sudol, both of whom actually give really strong performances. Rather, this is to say that it is very, very hard to build something in two or three scenes that can hold the weight of a film’s emotional climax. You need simplistic iconism – the closer they get to an ur-romantic plot, the quicker we ‘get it’ – and actors who don’t just have chemistry, but who have baggage. If you aren’t going to take the time to establish a relationship, you need to hire actors whose mere casting side-by-side suggests such a thing: Pitt & Jolie 10 years ago, Hanks & Ryan 20 years ago, Bogart and Bacall decades back. Most decades have one or two couples like this, and that’s the only way a moment like this works: Familiarity.
In a way, the film’s biggest problem is that it suffers from what I call ‘Mistaken Protagonist Syndrome.’ This is when the story has one protagonist, but the plot has a different one. Pacific Rim is a good example of this. Mako Mori is the only character in the film with a really strong arc. The story, from the thematic content to the emotional arcs, belongs to her. It is Mako Mori who pushes the program forward, Mako Mori who is chosen out of nowhere to pilot it, Mako Mori who has to overcome her tragic past to learn to pilot the mech, and Mako Mori who must watch her father figure sacrifice himself for her. But the plot, the list of events that happen, is about Raleigh Beckett, a washed up old pilot brought in, ultimately, to train Mako. He is Mako’s Obi-Wan, so why does the movie follow him?
Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them make a similar mistake, just… uh, twice. Because while there at three major running plots – more like five or six, honestly, but only three the heroes really intersect with – there are really just two competing stories. The most major is Katherine Waterston’s, as a mousy former magical detective who got in too deep on a case and got demoted, but is certain she was right and aching to dive back into the investigation. The second is Dan Fogler’s, as a schlubby everyman who learns about a world of magic and finds the potential for all his dreams to come true within it — if he survives. Either of these stories might be compelling on their own, but both are subsumed by the film’s plot, which finds whimsical mystic zoologist Newt Scamander trying to hunt down his missing animals. Films with Mistaken Protagonist Syndrome suffer not because they’re not entertaining but because the thematic and emotional content is drowned out by the sheer force of meaningless things relentlessly happening. In Pacific Rim, I found the meaningless things relentlessly happening (aka the plot) to be wildly entertaining even if it wasn’t satisfying on any deeper level; in Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them, I did not. Mileage may vary.
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that the movie is an unmitigated trainwreck. It’s gorgeous to look at. The costumes are fantastic. The score is solid. Rowling’s script has moments of genuine wit and insight. The performances are almost all excellent, with Samantha Morton’s Mary Lou Barebone and Colin Farrell’s Graves standing out as imposing, fascinating figures despite not having much to actually do. Carmen Ejogo likewise stands out, though the film gives her even less to do; on the page, she’s a mass of meaningless contradictions, and it’s only Ejogo who makes the character even semi-coherent. I don’t want to minimize the contributions of Sudol and Fogler, again, who try like hell to sell this thing.
Ultimately, a lot of storytelling comes down to a single question: Can you make us feel that something is true that we know isn’t? Special effects have come a long way to making a magical world that can feel real to the characters, but they can’t do anything for the characters’ relationships. Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them had some truly great core ideas, up to and including the failed emotional climax of Kowalski’s arc. But they were suffocated by plottiness, and there’s something genuinely sad about the Harry Potter series finally surrendering to the whiz-bang plot machinations that define and destroy so many blockbuster films.
Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is out now in theaters around the world. Written by J.K. Rowling (!) and directed by David Yates, Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them stars Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne,