Let’s be realistic here: if you were going to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in theaters, you already did it. The movie’s been out for more than a week and a half. I saw it the day before Thanksgiving, which — for me — is pretty late for a Harry Potter film.
So, obviously, this article is going to contain MAJOR SPOILERS for the movie, as I discuss six of the best things about the film… that could have been even better.
(Oh, and lest you think I didn’t like the movie… I did. I just also like to nitpick things.)
6. The Beasts — Let me get this one out of the way right off the bat. The first beast we see is a niffler — sort of a cross between a raccoon and a platypus that steals shiny objects, hides them in a pouch, and brings them back to decorate its nest. The niffler escapes Newt Scamander’s case and wreaks merry havoc at a bank, to the hilarity of the screenwriters (but not anyone who’s seen this kind of film before). I guess the scene is fine — it helps to set up three of the four main characters — but nothing about it actually surprised me.
But here’s the thing: The niffler itself looks like a cartoon character dropped into the middle of a live-action film, and it wasn’t the only one. The birds looked good, and so did many of the beasts in Newt’s menagerie, but enough of them looked cartoony to pull me out of the movie.
5. The “Disgraced Person is Busted Down to a Lower Rank but Redeems Herself” Storyline — Tina Goldstein, one of our heroes, used to be an Auror. But there was a scandal, and she was sent down to the wand registry office to toil in obscurity. Of course, she happens across Newt, sees him break a magical law, and hauls him in… to the president herself, which, by the way, means that if Tina was recognized by the president that means she was way up there in rank. I’m pretty sure the average British Auror’s name wasn’t personally known by Fudge or Scrimegour.
But here’s the thing: We’ve seen this in about a million cop movies and TV shows. Hell, Star Trek did it with Ensign Ro*, and even the Harry Potter series did it a few times (Hagrid comes to mind). The moment we heard that Tina had been busted in rank, we knew instantly that she would be redeemed by the end of the film. There was no mystery. I would have liked some mystery.
4. Verbal vs Nonverbal Spellcasting — I read an article recently — I don’t remember where — how the magical battles in the Harry Potter film series degenerated into Jedi lightsaber fights. People just zapped each other with wands while they were fighting in the eighth film, and that continued in Fantastic Beasts. At first it was just Tina and Graves, but by the end everyone was doing it (although, yes, Tina’s final spell of the film was verbal). Compared to Chamber of Secrets, when Draco and Harry dueled and used exclusively verbal spells — and everything I remember about Hogwarts’ education indicated that, unless otherwise stated, some sort of verbal incantation was necessary.
But here’s the thing: In the beginning of the film, Newt uses verbal spells almost exclusively, and even as far as halfway in he’s still doing it. Tina’s sister uses verbal spells sometimes, but not others. I think we need more clarity from Rowling and the rest of the architects of the Harry Potter universe as to when nonverbal magic works and when it doesn’t, and why. My best guess is that it’s a combination of power level (Graves is a very powerful wizard), familiarity (Tina’s sister is comfortable in the kitchen so she can perform kitchen magic without words), and training (Aurors are probably trained on how to use magic without words, for secrecy purposes).
3. Magical Reset Buttons — After the final battle in the film, Aurors use area-effect spells to undo the damage done by the main villain**. We see a montage of them just waving their wands and hands, and things just get put back together exactly the way they were. I suppose they’re using reparo or a more-powerful version of it, and sure, Aurors are powerful, and yes, we had to hit the reset button at the end, but it seemed almost too easy. Newt’s solution made sense because we needed a big set-piece, but just undoing everything that quickly was a little hard to believe. Even wizards aren’t all-powerful.
But here’s the thing: This is really more a complaint about films in general. It often seems like, after a battle between heroes and villains destroys a city, things get easily reset by the next one. By Dawn of Justice, Metropolis looked almost completely rebuilt from Kal-El’s battle with Zod — and I don’t think that’s possible in 18 months. It took almost 14 years to clean up, complete, and open the Freedom Tower for business. Magic can speed things along, but this was just too magical. Plus, everything was put back perfectly, which is a complete reversal of entropy. I guess at least it made sense that they destroyed New York City this time because, in the 1920s, that’s where pretty much everyone came into the U.S. from the east.
WARNING: The next two points are major spoilers for the end of the film. Although, I mean, if you’ve read this far, you already know everything that happens in it. I hope.
2. The Misdirect — The concept of the obscurus was actually quite interesting (if not terribly original), and I know that films need to misdirect their viewers so the story isn’t completely unsurprising — especially in a film like this, when you know the good guys are going to win. But… but…
But here’s the thing: I wasn’t once fooled by the camera playing to Modesty and Graves’s insistence that he needed to find a child who was about ten years old. I almost instantly figured out that it was Credence who was afflicted with the obscurus. The “creepy child” trope they attached to Modesty*** was such an obvious misdirect that I just looked right past it. Filmmakers need to find a new way to pull this off because, given the preponderance of twists in movies, there’s no mystery or secrecy anymore. We all know.
1. The Big Reveal — The newspaper montage at the start of the film established that Grindelwald was on the rise in the 1920s, and I was fine with that as a scene-setter. However, when Graves’s true identity was revealed… well, I mean, I knew it was coming because they couldn’t leave that gun unfired, but I don’t think it was earned. Graves’s little speech at the end about the secrecy statute struck me more as a wizard who was just sick and tired of the statute itself. I didn’t read more into it than that.
But here’s the thing: How did Newt know? He mentioned Grindelwald’s little “purity” homily when Graves was questioning him, but I didn’t catch a reaction from Graves. So what made Newt cast the revelatory spell on Graves to reveal his true identity? Had he been a part of a Scooby Doo-style adventuring team where every villain had the magical equivalent of a mask? Did magical villains in general use glamours? If so, why wouldn’t the Aurors have cast the spell on Graves? And speaking of, given his true identity, how did he manage to commit all the evil he committed and still rise to the top of the American Aurory? It’s questions like these that made me go back and look far too closely at the ending of the movie, and not in a good way. I either needed more clues laid in throughout (the symbol of the Deathly Hallows wasn’t enough), or Graves needed to have his own motivations — although, yes, I know, we needed to establish that these five films will culminate in Dumbledore’s battle with Grindelwald in 1945.
I would like to throw a quick kudos to Rowling, Kloves, and Yates for not throwing Newt and Tina together just because they were the male and female leads of the film****. There was a little romantic moment near the end, but for the most part it echoed the Harry/Hermione friendship angle. I was constantly worried there would be a romantic subplot, but given how socially-awkward Newt was established to be, I totally bought that he was oblivious until the end.
That said, as much as I loved Kowalksi, and as great as he was as the stand-in for the audience, and as sweet as the romance between him and Tina’s sister turned out to be, I’m getting really tired of the Ugly Guy, Hot Wife trope****. Why couldn’t Tina’s sister be the “ugly” one and Kowalski be the “hot” one? That needs to happen more often.
Oh, and, for what it’s worth, I thought Newt would hire Kowalski to be his bestiary assistant. I really didn’t expect his storyline to end quite the way it did, as satisfying as it was.
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* I happened to watch that episode with my daughter the day I saw the film, so it was fresh in my mind.
** Yup, another blockbuster movie that destroyed New York City. Are there really no other cities out there?
*** Out of curiosity, what happened to the New Salemer with the short red hair who was down in the main room right before Samantha Morton broke the wand? We see the aftermath, but we don’t see her. Did she flee? Was she killed? Inquiring minds and all that.
**** And by the way, what was up with Newt’s unrequited love for Leda LeStrange? That seemed like an unnecessary plot point and something that might be brought back up in the sequel. Tina’s sister and Newt discussed it briefly, but then the scene pretty much jumped from a quiet chat to that bird losing its mind because danger was afoot. I don’t know if something was edited there, but the whole sequence really wasn’t necessary and it just slowed down the story.
***** Kowalksi was by no means ugly, but he was overweight, and in Hollywood (or its international equivalent), fat often equals ugly. I mean, how else do you explain Kevin James’s characters all ending up with women who look like models, especially after you see how boorish the characters are? “Ugly” guys can end up with “hot” girls, sure, but that requires personality, and James’s characters often don’t have that. Kowalski, though, sure as hell had a great personality, and it’s easy to understand how Tina’s sister fell for him.