Verdict: You are going to see this movie anyway, I think we both know that. And it is fun, and has some good moments. But we can also be honest with ourselves and admit that this first attempt in the new HP franchise is weaker than wished, and has a lot of room to improve.
“The year is 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident, were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.”
Spoiler Free Review:
Considering it was her first attempt at a screenplay, Rowling did a damn fine job balancing the three competing storylines in this movie. There is the first plot, in which Redmayne loses some animals and then has to go find them. There is the second plot, in which witches and wizards and hunted, and young magic users are abused and suppressed by a group of extremist zealots called the Second Salemers. And there’s a third lesser plot involving the evil wizard Grindelwald and his followers. That is not an easy balance to have, considering the film has both light and very dark plots, and single-film and world-building plots, but Rowling does a good job on her first outing. Also, there’s a fantastic twist right at the end that is completely unseen.
Beasts also taps into the same successful mixture that most of the original films had: lots of imagination and good character chemistry. The titular beasts are really strange and push the limits of what we have seen from the world, in the best way. You get the sense that we have seen merely a glimpse of the magical world, barely scratching the surface of what is possible. I really look forward to seeing what other crazy designs they come up with.
The chemistry between most of the characters is strong, reminiscent of the warmth and humor found in the originals. The big difference, and welcome change, is now the chemistry is between adults, not children. The scene stealers are Jacob (Dan Fogler) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), two supporting characters that are an absolutely necessity to the pacing and tone of the movie. Fogler also has a great play off of the contrasting Redmayne.
Despite Rowling’s best attempts at balance, it is inherently difficult to have three big competing plots run through a film, and while she does succeed for the most part, the tension between the three are palpable. Light, fun, animal-finding plots do not always blend well into dark, suppression plots. The weakest component of the screenplay is a big twist going into the third act that is so easily guessed I thought it was a red herring.
Much like prequels from other massive franchises, this movie suffers from its over-reliance on CGI. The creatures, while imaginative, often look incredibly computerized, like the orcs or animals in The Hobbit. It looks even worse when we see the house elves. One of the strongest components of the original movies was the immersive feel of the world, because it was partly real. The basilisk, phoenix, acromantula, goblins, and house elves were part animatronic, part CGI. And it showed. The world that was constructed in those films felt like something you could actually step into. Hogwarts was a real place as far as anyone with eyes could tell.
Beasts lacks these qualities. It is hard to tell the setting is 1920’s America, other than the occasional musical change and reference to prohibition. My guess is, they don’t want to spend too much building a world they are leaving quickly; the sequels will likely take place in many different locations around the world, and not just ’20’s America. While I understand the logic, it does take you out of the immersive quality of the magical world the original films captured. Its bleak, mostly grays and blacks, with only a few shots of “whoa look at that cool magical thing.”
Another weak point was the sound editing. Now I have fairly bad hearing. I turn up the TV far too loud and usually have the subtitles on. You know, what average folks in their 20s do. But even for me, there were some parts of this movie that were too damn loud. To emphasize the real power of a certain evil component of the film, the sound is cranked way up to the point of discomfort. On the flip side, there are times when the dialogue is so quiet or blended that I easily missed 10-20% of it.
Finally is Redmayne, and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein. Waterston is not a bad actress by any stretch, but it was clear that the filmmakers did not know what to do with her part. She has the back story of someone who is very competent and dangerous, but is shown to be bumbling and timid. There is a somewhat forced romance plot that is never given room to grow. Her relationship with her sister Queenie is only obvious because they tell you so. She’s also has an integral relationship with a Second Salemer that is quickly shoe horned in and has a conclusion that is not deserved.
Redmayne is fine. That is about where it stops. He is not bad, he just plays the part exactly like Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything. Maybe that is just who he is, or maybe he is given parts that fit that same role over and over. Either way, I’d love to see him actually stretch, because this was not it.
Harry Potter gets a lot of well-deserved flack for its lack of representation in a variety of areas. And this film attempts to be better, but fails. There are a few POC, namely WOC. The standout is Carmen Ejogo as President Seraphina Picquery, though she is rarely seen. Then there’s a really weird moment where a house elf (…of color? I guess?) is singing in a speakeasy, and it feels weird. That’s the best I can describe it. The point is, considering the movie takes place in 1920’s New York, there could have and should have been considerably more representation in its casting. Quick note, there is a great scene of the Magical Congress that shows quite a bit of diversity, so that was nice.