SPOILER WARNING: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates, 2016) does not give its characters much to do, nor does it care to. Instead of focusing on telling a coherent and compelling tale of wizards and witches in 1920s New York City, the film chooses instead to focus on the world that its characters exist within. However, Fantastic Beasts does not do even this well, as instead of creating a fascinating character study set within a fictional setting, the film chooses to tell the audience who the good guys are and then declare that that is reason enough for them to be loved. That and the fact that they are characters within the Harry Potter universe. Given that not much by way of narrative actually happens in the film and that most of the film focuses on its characters, there should be a decent amount of character development. But this is perhaps the greatest shortfall of the film. Instead of developing a unique cast of complicated and diverse characters, Fantastic Beasts focuses only on the latter trait but not any more than is necessary to give each character just one or two unique quirks. This extends past the main characters as well, to the point that Fantastic Beasts does not have a coherent or compelling villain for its characters to face. While a film with better character development could side skirt a weak villain, Fantastic Beasts cannot, and because of this the end result is a film where nothing happens of any real importance.
At its core, Fantastic Beasts is attempting to fulfill the role of a stepping-stone between franchise subdivisions. Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), Fantastic Beasts seeks to link the old franchise films, in this case the original eight Harry Potter films, to the upcoming new ones set in the same universe but with different central characters. And this is what faults the film the most. While The Force Awakens was overly concerned with nods and winks to the more revered films of the franchise, it still managed to develop its characters well enough that they did not solely depend on the audience’s pre-existing love for the film universe in order for them to be convincing. This is especially true in the case of Kylo Ren, one of the villains that the film sought to set up for future franchise installments. Considering that he is an entirely new character for the franchise, Ren’s development is especially important and also equally impressive. Within the film he is set up as not only a force to be reckoned with, but also as one that is unique from any other villain previously seen in a central Star Wars film. Ren’s complexities are brought on by both his fearsome nature and unreliability, but also his unevenness, and all of this works to make him a better character. At one moment menacing and at the next pathetic, he puts method and a face to the mask that he often hides behind, and this elevates him above much of the standard fare. The same cannot be said for any of the characters in Fantastic Beasts; and this is especially true in the case of its villain.
The villain of Fantastic Beasts is Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard that already existed in the Harry Potter canon prior to his first film appearance. But he does not truly appear in Fantastic Beasts until the final moments of the film, and herein lies the best entry point into the film’s character issues. In fairness, Grindelwald is briefly shown in the film’s opening casually obliterating several other wizards, but the audience does not see his face. This is meant to serve towards a reveal of sorts, but the film makes little to no effort to indicate that Grindelwald is behind the various nefarious magical acts that are occurring in New York City throughout the film. In the end, he is not actually behind any of the events of the film, and it is revealed that he was actually Colin Farrell’s Graves the entire time. But instead of being a devastating reveal that would make audiences question what they had seen in the film prior, this twist instead only makes Grindelwald seem ineffectual and less fearsome. Graves accomplishes little in Fantastic Beasts. He does attempt to have Newt Scamander and Tina Goldstein executed, but other than the fact that this attempt is unsuccessful, Graves seems troubled by this decision and so any sense of villainy is lost. The entire Magical Congress of the United States of America is portrayed as ineffectual and cold, and because of this Graves’ actions do not seem out of character.
What is worse for making the case that Grindelwald is a serious villain is that when Graves does do things that do not make much sense, these actions are generally on the more humanistic side. Throughout the film Graves is shown as attempting to help the abused no-mag child Credence. Even though it is clear that these actions are primarily for his own advancement, these are far from things that would add to his repertoire as a villain. It is not until late in the third act of the film that Fantastic Beasts chooses to make up its mind as to whether or not Graves is a villain or not, and only then does anything start to truly happen. But all of this feels forced and unnatural and far too late for it to save the prior hours of almost nothing relevant happening that has embodied the film.
Essentially, Fantastic Beasts is two films that do not mesh together well. As mentioned, the film is meant to complete the arduous task of linking the prior films to the oncoming ones, but in this case the oncoming films are prequels to the originals and therefor few of the already-established characters can be used to help set up the story. Because of this, the film has more work to do as it has to establish its setting, the good guys, the bad guys, and what their respective goals are. But little of this is accomplished well, as the film focuses too much on the adventures of its protagonists, and those mean very little in the bigger picture that the film is trying to paint. This is tellingly illustrated when Newt is forced to release early the beast he came to the United States for in the first place simply because the plot demands it.
In the end, Fantastic Beasts does not know how to establish real characters, or it simply does not care to as it expects its audience to love or fear them simply because they are set in the Harry Potter universe. Both of the options are equally damning to the film, and either would be the result of the film needing to do too much but focusing its attention in the wrong places. Grindelwald is to be the villain of the oncoming new series of films, but Fantastic Beasts has done little to make its audience believe that he is a worthwhile foe. He is said to be a dangerous wizard, but rarely shown as such. The same is true for the rest of the characters in most of their aspects, and it is rarely convincing. Graves does not boost his alter ego’s repertoire at all, and his overall meandering makes him seem generally less fearsome.
Simply put, Fantastic Beast would be a better film if Graves did not exist. The Force Awakens managed to establish a convincing villain by way of actually showing him in action throughout the film. If this were the case for Fantastic Beasts, then Grindelwald would at least be given some actions to back up the respect that his name is spoken with by the characters in the film. The nameless wizards that are killed by him in the film’s opening are far from enough to make him seem like anything more than just a bad man. What is revealed to be his goal in the film does not elevate him either, namely because he has failed to do so and also because that goal is not very grand in general. The first Harry Potter films had better character development and Voldemort was a convincing villain because he had numerous films building him up as a legitimate threat. Both this route and the route The Force Awakens took better established their respective threats, and in the end Fantastic Beasts would have been better off taking either of them.