If you haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them yet, then first things first -- what the heck are you waiting for?! Second, you might not be a Potter fan. Third, what the heck are you waiting for?! Below is a non-spoiler look at why I think the first film in this five-film series is so effective...
Based on a textbook that originally had handwritten notes from Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the margins called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this book and the movie have a few things in common. First of all, the in-universe author of FB&WTFT is Newt Scamander (played by Oscar-winning actor-cum-big money-making thespian Eddie Redmayne), the main character of this story. He’s on a quest to journey through America to continue his outrageous magical animal safari and finish this book he’s been working on. (The only spoiler here really is that the book becomes more famous than he could’ve imagined, and if you need me to spell out again, then so help me Dumbledore I will beat you harder than any Beater has beaten a bludger…) The movie also has magical beasts featured in the book, and that’s where the comparisons end. That’s where we first meet Newt. He gets off a boat in 1926 New York City and begins his adventure.
I don’t want to tell you what happens next aside from the fact he meets our other main characters, like Muggle (or "No-Maj" in American) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Magical Congress of the United States of America (America's Ministry of Magic equivalent) employee Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and her sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). Newt is a self-described annoying person, and because of tha,t people don’t like him very much. It’s only fair that just for being in New York City, Newt sets off a panic among the wizarding folks around the city to find him and get rid of him for being an insufferable nitwit… Just kidding. It’s because some of his animals get out and it causes havoc around the city, thus putting the magical community in jeopardy and fear of being exposed. That’s about as much of the plot I want to review. Now we can talk about what really struck me in this movie...
I know a bit of what happens when you write a movie for a studio. The studio will give you notes and ask that you tailor it more to their liking. It’s the name of the game. There are also uncredited writers who are hired for re-writes and other things that happen on set that ultimately change what was on the page to what we see on-screen. With all of that said, J.K. Rowling did a darn good job with this being her first screenplay. Maybe it’s because they’re adults, or maybe it’s because people are trying to jam a 400-page novel into a two-hour movie, but the characters here feel more developed than the original book-adapted movies. They have time to breath and be people. Right away upon hearing all of our main characters speak, we get a great sense of who these people are. They feel real.
I love the Harry Potter books and movies, don’t get me wrong, but we don’t always understand the character’s motivations, or really get a sense of who they are deep in their bones. It’s only one movie, but I feel like I already know these people, which Rowling deserves a lot of credit for. Some of the greatest authors of all time set their sights on movies in a more than getting their books made into films type scenario. The oldest one I know of is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ol’ F. Scott is known for writing one of the greatest American novels of all time, The Great Gatsby. After that, there was some stuff where his wife criticized his (ahem) size, went nuts, and spent the most of what was left in her life in mental hospitals until she died in a fire while awaiting electro-shock therapy. Sometime while all of that was going on, F. Scott tried his hand at screenwriting -- and boy did he fail. The man could write the heck out of a novel, but when it came to a screenplay, he was as useless as bringing a tray of bacon-wrapped turkey legs fried in cheese at a vegan potluck dinner.
Even horror writing legend Stephen King has thrown his hat into the ring of directing, acting (more cameo stuff than anything), and screenwriting… none of which he has done to the same degree of success as his authoring. People have made great things out of his books, and he seems to be quite a fan of TV and movies, but for whatever reason he’s fallen to the curse of failing to make the transition. Rowling, however, has quite an accomplishment here. Aside from knowing exactly who the characters are, we also have good setups for things to come plot-wise and more world-building. There’s a lot somebody can do with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and it’s great to see Rowling stepping up and adding more.
With all that said, there are some flaws. For one -- and this isn’t necessarily on the film itself -- but the CGI didn’t look great on film. My girlfriend and I saw it opening night in 70MM, and the digital graphics didn’t really translate well. We’re planning on seeing it again in digital 3D and are banking on the creatures looking better there. Also, some of the plot twists were predictable. Hey, this happens when you’ve seen a lot of movies and especially when you’re watching a studio movie. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it and I think families with (older) kids will too. (Parents, after the first half of this movie, you may want to put the really little ones to bed.)
All in all, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an awesome movie that will be an entertaining watch whether you're a Potter fan or not. It also marks a fun-looking trend in Hollywood for spinoffs (Rogue One, the first Star Wars spinoff, is coming out next month) that expands more on the worlds we love. Now I can only sit back, watch, and hope to God they’re all as good if not better than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.