Fantastic beasts—and not much else

“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is an absolute mess. A gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless.

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (3 out of 5 reels)

“What works well as a spice often does not work well as a main course.” — Omar Ebbs 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an absolute mess. A gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining mess, but a mess nonetheless. It demonstrates a vivid imagination and has some of the best costumes, sets, and visual effects of any film this year, but its story is confusing and often contrived, with the added weight of several even more muddled subplots. Many spinoffs simply don’t have enough weight to stand on their own two feet, and this is a good cinematic case in point. 

The movie is based on a textbook of the same name in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe and the exploits of its author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). It is the first in a bloated five film series. This is made even more crazy by the fact the book is mere 128 page—a feat even the producers of The Hobbit couldn’t pull off. Newt has come from Britain to America in the 1920s with a suitcase full of strange creatures to release a thunderbird back into the wilds of Arizona. Of course, many of these animals get loose in New York City. Newt, along with several companions, must round them up before they do too much damage. Additionally, there are not one but two villains on the loose: an evil wizard and a weird ball of grey goo called an Obscurus. Additionally, there is a subplot about a romance between a witch and a nomaj—an American muggle—which is, of course, prohibited in backwards pre-60s United States. Additionally, there is a group of witch hunters trying to convince a newspaper magnate that a magical world exists and needs to be destroyed. If this all sounds terribly confusing, it’s because it is. The story goes in many directions at once and leaves plenty unexplained.

Yet despite these problems, director David Yates manages to get one thing right – the fantastical creatures that fill the pages of the source materials and the imaginations of elementary school children. Some of these animals are quite clever, like the kleptomaniac platypus whose pouch seems to be able to hold more than Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Others are rather stupid, like the rhinoceros whose horn is glowing because she’s in heat. These delights have no connection to reality and should help dissolve any lingering problems that wary parents have about Harry Potter’s supposed pagan connections, even despite a passing but strange reference to the pentagram. This is pure fantasy with no real religious connotations in mind. 

Yet when Newt isn’t chasing invisible sloths, there is real trouble brewing between magical and non-magical worlds. Similar to Rowling’s previous works, the idea of being ostracized or “different” takes center stage. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a Westboro Baptist-type organization that is devoted to killing witches while harboring several within its ranks; the Society gets orphans to hand out leaflets in exchange for small amounts of food. The Magical Congress works hard to keep the magical world hidden from prying eyes. Yet when wizards suppress their magical abilities, it creates a powerful black entity, called an Obscurus, that can destroy whole buildings and seems impervious to spells. It’s not made clear whether the Obscurus is a person or just a force, but in either case is clearly meant to be a metaphor for the “dangers” of suppressing the passions and one’s “true” identity. 

Such a message, while not completely inaccurate, is easily manipulated to give credibility to homosexuality or transgenderism. A much better illustration of the same theme is the forbidden relationship between Kowalski, a nomaj baker, and Queenie, a cute flapper with a slightly disturbing ability. Played by Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, they are adorable and far more interesting than any of the other characters. 

Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts works because it’s just so darn entertaining. Rich and vivid, every scene is filled with remarkable sights and sounds. The problem is the humans who occupy this world and bring darkness wherever they go. Newt seems to have figured this out a long time ago, preferring the company of his creatures and even refusing to look people in the face when speaking to them. Hopefully, through people like Queenie and Kowalski, he will learn to see the goodness in humanity. I bet he will eventually. After all, he has another four movies to go. 

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About Nick Olszyk 201 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".