“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the much anticipated prequel to the Harry Potter series, centered on the adventures of the renowned author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”) in his writing of the titular textbook read by Harry and the crew. It would be easy to gush about the Harry Potter universe and the role of this film in setting the groundwork for the future generation, especially in regards to Grindewald’s rise to power and the foundation of modern magical education. However, while fun and creatively impressive, the film’s failing in character depth reveals deeper issues of the film industry’s reliance on digital effects and the problematic paradox of ornamental diversity.
One of the most anticipated elements of the film is its reveal of the wizarding world in America. Set in post-WWII New York City, the film integrates magical society with the non-magical in the traditional Harry Potter fashion. The bulk of this work is focused on the Magical Congress of the United States, a Ministry-esque government hub complete with flying paper airplanes, magical lifts and an infinite skyrise of offices. “Fantastic Beasts” fails to deliver a world as complex and fascinating as the original, but this is understandable given its limited duration and the fact that it’s the first film of its series. In particular, in terms of the complexity and breadth of its universe, the film lacks that unique nostalgic tie to the original series and is ultimately a faded replica of what fans have come to expect.
While the film disappoints on setting, it overwhelmingly delivers in its exploration of the world of magical creatures – a world that, until now, has barely been skimmed. In one pivotal scene, Newt descends into his leather briefcase to tend to his creatures. In this moment, the film tests the creative imagination of its viewers; Newt reveals the multiple biomes present in his case, each inhabited by a diverse spectrum of creatures ranging from massive to miniscule and unassuming to terrifying. The CGI work in this scene, while not entirely seamless, works effectively to translate the imagination of JK Rowling and the other creative minds in constructing an entirely new magical facet of this universe not seen in the books. This scene does the bulk of the work in terms of Newt’s character as well, as his commitment becomes evident.
However, Newt may be the only interesting and complex character in the entire film. Across the board, every character but the protagonist lacks nuance and understandable motivations. Tina (Katherine Waterson, “Steve Jobs”) plays the American ex-auror who both aids and inhibits Newt; she oscillates between a sense of duty and a desire for adventure, landing somewhere in the neutral and boring middle. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, “Custody”) is Scamander’s Muggle (the American term is No-Maj) sidekick who somehow manages to stay un-obliviated and is kind of charming but ultimately useless. Even the main antagonist, Graves (Colin Farrell, “True Detective”), lacks the subtlety to explain his desire for destructive, uncontrollable dark magic.
This overwhelming trend in the film reveals the formulaic blockbuster reliance of CGI to carry the film and subsequently sucks the nuance from the film’s character depth and development. This results in one-dimensional, uninteresting characters who don’t work to challenge the viewer’s critical consumption experience. This lack of depth is particularly salient in the context of a modern film industry and cultural climate that puts emphasis on diversity within the cast and crew. The epitome of this intersection is seen in the Magical Congress’ President, a female woman of color who supposedly has the most power but is arguably the most accessory and useless character in the film. Here we see the paradox of implementing diversity but neglecting depth; diversity becomes ornamental and problematic in it of itself. While “Fantastic Beasts” delivers fans the Harry Potter experience on the surface, its choices in focus reveal larger problematic trends in film and culture.