SPOILER WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for Fantastic Beasts. Read on at your own peril.
Blockbusters these days are never just one film. Studios, looking at profit margins and box office takings, are already signing the actors up for the sequels long before the first feature even hits the cinemas. Great news for the actors, who are basically set for life after this; not so great news for the audiences who go to watch a great film but come out of the cinema knowing they’ll have to wait two or three years to see the next part of the story. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is just such a film.
That this film is so obviously the first part of a new story is the biggest slap in the face it delivers to audiences, because the way Fantastic Beasts pans out is not in a way where delivering a complete story matters. Instead we’re meant to be awestruck by the sight of house elves washing wands as a stand in for shoeshine boys (why you would need to wash a wand is never explained, but presumably magic works better once it’s been given a touch of Daz), or grumpily moaning away behind the bar of a speakeasy. They’re cheap tricks from a film that has to use them to make up for the fact it’s just part one of four or five planned films.
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So don’t be surprised when Colin Farrell’s Mr Graves turns into Johnny Depp’s Grindlewald, and this series loses one of its best assets, unless by contrivance of the scriptwriter’s hand Colin Farrell turns out to have a twin. Even though Grindlewald hasn’t had any impact on this film beyond accusations traded back and forth between the equally superfluous Madam Pickory and her European counterparts, he has to show up because he’s obviously going to be the villain of the series. That’s arguably the worse failing of this film, because the performance Farrell puts in is breathtaking. The scenes in particular where he manipulates Credence, showing an almost fatherly devotion to the boy, even as he uses him for his own agenda, would be worthy of an Oscar if you could win one for this kind of film. So you can’t help but be disappointed when the façade of Farrell is torn away to reveal Depp. Had Farrell and his secret agenda remained for the next one or two films this could be forgiven. As it is Fantastic Beasts makes a naked play to dazzle us with the apparently bigger star of Depp as a teaser for the sequel.
Still we shouldn’t be surprised this series has played the ace up its sleeve too early. Fantastic Beasts is overly fond of giving the game away in general, as the whole Harry Potter franchise does its level best to follow in the footsteps of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings by writing what is basically a big love letter to itself the way every bad prequel does. The collateral damage from this love letter is all too easy to spot, whether it’s the way the younger of the Shaw boys might as well be an extra as the potential richness of his need to prove himself the equal of his senator brother is tapped only for a couple of scenes and then forgotten about. Or the way Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) lost her job as a fancy investigator for MACUSA not because she’s an incompetent halfwit chasing shadows, which is the way she’s written, but because she defended Credence against his abusive adoptive mother.
That Samantha Morton brings the mother to life in such a vivid way is a credit to her acting, even as it begs the question of why we don’t see more of her on the screen. Her cold fury at witchkind deserves an explanation that goes beyond that of prop for Credence’s anger, but this is not something you will get in this film, because it, and its sequels will echo this, has lost sight of what makes a good film beyond coin snatching duckbilled platypuses and aroused rhinoceroses chasing a man who just wants to be a baker.
Instead we are given a film where the use of magic and goblins with cigars is meant to make us overlook these failings. The only problem for Fantastic Beasts with going along with that approach is that every film full of substandard characterisation takes the same approach, and audiences have long since grown canny enough to recognise it.
By Gareth Wood