Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came so close to being a good movie that it hurt. It had so many things going for it, and all they needed to do was just fall into place to tell a story far better than any of the Harry Potters. But alas, it was not meant be! The refusal to take the last necessary steps into awesome territory and a final fifteen minutes that came crashing down around what had been built up, as though to telegraph just how badly I was about to be disappointed, managed to drag the whole thing into the rubbish bin. When I found myself thinking “Oh, my God, a pulpy story in the Harry Potter universe?!” I realized that there was no way I would not be disappointed, and no amount of finger crossing could save me.

Fantastic Beasts has a lot of stuff going for it, especially early on. In fact, up through the scene where they’re at the goblin speakeasy, I’m thinking “Man, this is fantastic!”

To begin with, FB starts essentially the same way as Mo-Sanshon!; an outsider crosses the path of a normal guy and drags him off on a wild adventure. Newt Scamander, a squirrely wizard with a menagerie of monsters enlists the help of the unwitting Jacob Kowalski to help him recover creatures that have escaped. Kowalski is the normal joe, everyman hero like the kind you’d see in the pulps – he was a part of the expeditionary forces in World War One, he’s a blue collar worker, and he has a dream of starting his own business.* Where these two cross paths is in the bank where Kowalski is trying to get a loan to open a bakery; at this point, we don’t know if Scamander is going to be a shifty villain or wild trickster, given the trouble he’s causing, but we know right away that Kowalski is someone we’re going to be rooting for!

Not only does it have the perfect pulp adventure setup, it’s got dames! Tina Goldstein is tough and no nonsense; she takes her job seriously and she’s capable – unfortunately, her compassion (and a bit of temper) had put her in a bad spot with her superiors and it’s shaken her confidence a bit. Her sister Queenie is smart and sexy, a powerful master of domestic arts (I know how this sounds, but watching her make dinner for Kowalski was absolutely one of the best scenes in the whole movie), and devilishly clever, but even though she can read people’s thoughts, she doesn’t resent men for thinking she’s a bombshell. She even falls for the normie every-joe!

The fact that Kowalski holds his own fairly well, a few bumbles aside, and isn’t reduced to a punching bag works out really strongly for a good chunk of the film. Unfortunately, the movie can’t fully embrace the fact that Jacob Kowalski is the real hero of the story. Wizards can do, get into, and get out of just about anything; Kowalski can’t, which is why the stakes for him as a mere mortal who’s won the heart of a gorgeous wizard dame are incredibly high and why he’s the one to root for. Unfortunately, when things reach their head with the uninteresting A-plot-that-feels-like-a-B-plot with whatshisname the evil wizard and the crazy orphan boy, Kowalski never gets his big-damn-hero moment that he desperately needs…that WE desperately need. Frankly, Scamander doesn’t get one either, and the whole unmasking of the bad guy as being some other bad guy felt incredibly anti-climactic. I didn’t care about the kid with the crazy chaotic magic powers or the guy trying to manipulate him; I cared about whether or not Kowalski would be able to break the no-normies-hooking-up-with-wizards taboo and if he’d get that bank loan!

Spoilers! There have been spoilers before, but I’m really going to spoil it now.

Even though the movie was starting to completely fall apart by the big wizard… conversation at the end, I’m thinking “Okay, there’s still a chance… there’s still a chance!” President Wizard Lady says ‘this is a disaster, we can’t wipe the memories of everyone in Manhattan’, and Scamander says ‘lol, yeah we can, cuz this thing I have’. Kowalski has to get wiped. There’s a teary scene as Kowalski steps into the rain where he’ll forget his big adventure and his love with Queenie. While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks. The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

 

This movie came SO CLOSE to being what I wanted from a gonzo fantasy movie set in the Roaring 20s New York, and that’s what makes it hurt the worst. Frankly, the characters were far more likable than anyone else in the Potterverse. But one of the major problems the movie had was trying to work in a good versus evil conflict that just wasn’t nearly as interesting as the main good-guys and the host of cool, scary, and cute monsters. If they had completely excised the stupid and inane plot about Grindelwald pretending to be Graves and the kid who’d gone crazy supernova from being forced to hide his magic powers by a crazy magic hating orphanarium marm and just made it about tracking down a bunch of weird monsters that had escaped and undoing the damage they’d done, it would’ve been a much better story, because all of the parts of the movie focusing on the later were absolutely wonderful. Supposedly, there are going to be several more movies about Grindelwald, which sucks, because his storyline was the worst part of the movie that dragged the whole damn thing down. I don’t care about what the wizards do with boring generic evil wizard-guy, I wanted to see Scamander throw his British reserve to the wind and give Goldstein that hero’s kiss she obviously wanted and was literally crying because she knew she would not get.

*:Normal joes tended to be a lot more awesome back then; it’s a law of averages thing.

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42 responses to “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

  1. Well, I can’t disagree with you more, though your opinions are well thought out and well-written (nothing mock-worthy). I thought the final scenes of the film were fantastic, and I thought Newt got MULTIPLE BDH moments. Plus I disagree with some other stuff.

    Like this…

    The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

    I TOTALLY disagree with. Listen to the President’s tone; she’s really pissed that she owes these people. If Jacob makes that comment, and Tina, Queenie, and Newt stand up for him? Then aurors come in, wipe Jacob anyway, and send all three to jail. That’s what the rain scene was about: They know there’s nothing they can do, no matter how powerful they are. That’s why it’s such a great scene. Sure, we get an out later, sort of, but that’s different: It’s about what the characters know at the time.

    And I totally disagree with this:

    While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks.

    I loved that scene. Newt is not the type of guy who goes for the big kiss on the docks. You might want it, but it’s not either of their personalities. An endearing scene and a promise to return (plus, we know from the actual textbook Rowling published that Newt eventually marries Tina) is far more in character for both of them. The big kiss is the most in character for Queenie, and that’s exactly who does it.

    I dunno. I guess for me…not everything is pulp, you know? Not everything has to be. “Fantastic Beasts” had pulp elements, sure, but there’s no reason it had to hit every beat. Newt wasn’t the typical pulp hero, nor was Jacob, nor was Tina. And that’s great! I really liked the characters. The closest we had to a real pulp/noir character was Queenie, who is somewhere at least in the vicinity of the femme fatale model, and she DOES act the most like a pulp character.

    I’ve got some other thoughts on it here: http://superversivesf.com/2016/11/30/castalia-full-review-fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them/

    Anyway, like I said, I can’t really say your opinion is “Wrong”. I guess some of it is a matter of preference, too. Maybe you’re tired of the Newts of the world being heroes, but I liked it.

    • Newt got some moments, sure, but he felt more like part of the cause of the conflict than the actual protagonist – and part of this was because it felt like the movie was never sure who the protagonist should really be – so a lot of his heroics were undoing his own screw-ups. While he’s not quite the Cat in the Hat, Newt’s bag of tricks that he brings is the root of much of the mischief and trouble that happens. He gets some good moments, some exciting moments, and some touching moments, but I wanted a Han Solo shooting down Darth Vader “Hell yeah!” moment. Kowalski needed more of all of the above.

      The Aurors could take Kowalski’s side: “Madam President, they did save our butts.”

      The best case for the parting between Newt and Tina is because Newt is not actually the protagonist, he does not undergo any changes – he’s still as doofy and awkward as he was at the start, hence no kiss.

      If the movie hadn’t gone so far in the direction of teasing the possibility of those things, I wouldn’t be so let down when they didn’t happen.

      • Newt got some moments, sure, but he felt more like part of the cause of the conflict than the actual protagonist – and part of this was because it felt like the movie was never sure who the protagonist should really be – so a lot of his heroics were undoing his own screw-ups.

        Some of it was fixing his own screw-ups, sure, and they were probably the best parts of the movie.

        But going after the Obscurus at the end? Pure hero moment. 100%. Escaping and rescuing Tina? Badass, and pure Newt badass (plus, Tina saying “Well I LOVE it!” is one of my favorite lines of the film).

        Newt’s bag of tricks doesn’t cause that much trouble. Graves/Grindelwald does. He just uses the bag as an excuse.

        The best case for the parting between Newt and Tina is because Newt is not actually the protagonist, he does not undergo any changes – he’s still as doofy and awkward as he was at the start, hence no kiss.

        I disagree. It’s that it’s movie one. He changed, he just hasn’t changed enough yet for that moment – but he did change enough to at least make a move, when earlier he was looking for excuses to escape her house. That’s a big deal.

        The Aurors could take Kowalski’s side: “Madam President, they did save our butts.”

        Well, they did, but Kowalski didn’t. He was just kind of there, which they even point out at the end (only keeping him around because they liked him). As you pointed out, he hasn’t really earned anybody’s trust but the protagonists.

        Anyway, I think that…sure, there’s a possible direction for that scene to go. But it didn’t have to go that way. You’re seeing “It should be more pulp”, but I’m not seeing that. Pulp is one type of story, but not the only type.

        I DO 100% agree that the weakest parts were the parts without the protagonists, but hopefully the set-up pays off later.

    • Frankly, I agree with just about everything in your own assessment; it’s just that because I feel the same way, but also feel the movie dropped the ball, that I am so bummed out by the last act of the film.

    • I figured it out, and it actually doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s pulpy or not, but everything to do with not having had seen trailers, read reviews or been exposed to any other spoilers.

  2. (Also, I didn’t like the bar scene at all, which felt too suspiciously similar to the Star Wars cantina scene for me and had the most obvious CGI of the movie. Compare Jnarlack to Griphook – one is clearly a real guy in costume, the other is our heroes speaking with a CGI model, and it’s too obvious to me.)

    • Jazz elf was kinda weird and gross, but Kowalski punched the goblin in the nose so they could get away and got the critter back, and that was awesome and what really mattered anyway. He needed more moments like that.

  3. I agree on a lot of your points. I was a lot more interested in the four main characters than the Graves storyline. He made for an interesting villain for a while, but the end kind of fell flat. And that obliviate serum at the end was also out of nowhere. This venom can erase people’s memories!

    • Yeah; Graves was almost an interesting villain. A much better story would’ve been that Graves was just an overzealous bureaucrat that hated magical creatures, and Newt’s doof-ups gave him an opportunity to push his agenda harder. The whole thing about the obscura and Grindelwold was stupid and boring and the movie would’ve been better if that entire plot had been excised.

      The venom was brought up earlier, so it was a Chekov’s gun fired, but it was still kind of a cheap cop-out.

    • The other big issue is that with the venom erasing people’s memories… what about the dead senator?

      You have a public figure who is now dead. How does New York deal with that? How does his dad, Jon Voight? What about when Congress meets next, do they look around and ask, “Hey what happened to that senator fellow? Anybody know?”

      This seems like a very huge loose thread for the plot to ignore.

  4. I think you can make a pretty strong case that the biggest flaw of the movie is that it was movie one. A lot of stuff – including more character development – was clearly held in the chamber to be fired later. Same with the side plots.

    The worst parts of the film were the parts without the protagonists, but I think the time we spend with the main four ranks with any of the Harry Potter series.

    • I think the biggest difference in our thoughts on this is that I see Kowalski as the story’s protagonist (he has the most to gain and the most to lose of any of the main characters and faces the most personal risk as a normie).

      Newt is left too unresolved to feel like a real protagonist; if he weren’t left hanging, it would be easier to say “yeah, okay, this guy is the hero”. The long-running/planned plots were the weakest parts of the story and I feel they hurt what could’ve been a really satisfying story that stood on its own.

      • I think you can make a fine and interesting movie with Jacob as the protagonist. This just wasn’t that movie.

        But I do 100% agree that the myth arc stuff was the weakest. I hold out hope that the payoff is going to be worth the set-up.

      • I can’t help it; I find the aspiring entrepreneur who can’t just fix things with the wave of a wand a more interesting and compelling character 3:

    • (and because I feel like the first act sets Kowalski up as a protagonist, or at least co-protagonist, I see the last act of the movie not really delivering on him as well as it had set itself up to. After his “No, I’m one of you, now” moment, I really thought he was gonna do something really big, but it doesn’t deliver and neither he nor Queenie show up until after the big fight is over.)

      • I will say that Tina wasn’t really the pulp dame. Queenie was. She consistently acts the part throughout the film, using her sex appeal to manipulate men, being the most open by far about her affections and, I think appropriately, being the one who is willing to go for the Big Damn Kiss. She’s over the top, she’s sexy, she has a little bit of femme fatale in her…she’s the pulp dame, not Tina.

        Which goes back to, I think, what you correctly note is probably our primary point of divergance: You’d prefer a movie with Jacob as the main character and her as the main love interest, not as the B couple.

        Which is a perfectly fair opinion to have.

        She was clearly the one se

      • It’s the difference between the old school heroine and the new Strong Female Character trope; Tina is very much in the old mold, and it was incredibly refreshing.

      • Also, up until the end, neither pairing felt like B couple; they both felt about the same level, and I thought that was really cool. And the fact that Tina and Newt end things so stiffly hurts because they’re such a likable cute couple.

      • Man, yeah, that was messed up as hell.
        Mass murderer? Sent to Azkaban.
        Failure to report an incident in a timely manner? Boiled alive in mystic mercury!

      • I retract my complaint somewhat. When I looked at it again, I remembered that scene incorrectly. She’s not sentenced in front of the President, just jailed. Graves sentences them, and he specifically speeds up the process (saying he’ll inform the President later himself).

        Her knowing the executioner’s name was MESSED UP, though.

      • Still, everyone seemed pretty okay with it like it was something that happens regularly enough to be reasonable. I mean, they got the room for it, and the one lady has clearly done this several times before.

        Those muricans and their capital punishment!

      • Yes, I was surprised at how dark that execution scene was. And then how Tina is glad to get her job back so she can work with the people who tried to euthanize her with smiles on their faces.

      • Mass murderer? Sent to Azkaban.
        Failure to report an incident in a timely manner? Boiled alive in mystic mercury!

        I’m reasonably sure that’s the British author doing a “take that” at the Americans.

        It gets tiresome having to deal with this cliche that just because you think sometimes there are people worth a killing, that not every problem needs killing as a solution. It’s less a slippery slope argument than a precipice argument.

    • I also really, really liked Newt’s explanation at the end of why he kept Jacob around: “Because I like you”.

      Because it’s a legitimate question! By the end of the film, you really are wondering that, but Jacob is so likable that I accepted Newt’s explanation easily. It’s pretty much exactly why everybody else wants him there, so when Newt says it he’s just echoing what we’re all thinking anyway.

      • Yeah, I appreciate a good friendship moment (which may or may not be magic) which I think movies don’t seem to know how to do anymore. Maybe it’s just the fandoms spoiling it by turning everything romantic (see: captain america).

        Anyway, I was kind of hoping for Newt & Jacob adventures because Jacob was like the first real friend Newt had. Heck I would have paid for the 3D ticket if there was a scene of Jacob playing wingman to Newt & Tina.

      • Yeah, this is actually the first movie in a good long while that I’ve watched where the friendship actually felt like a realistic relationship. Modern movies tend to write close friendships a lot like they do romantic relationships, but Newt and Jacob’s relationship really seems to match up well with how actual friendships work. It’s refreshing.

      • Now that they’ve published “JK Rowling’s Original Script”, we can go back and check to see if someone on a committee cocked up all that could’ve been!

        I may see if I can snag a copy on an after-christmas sale.

      • Don’t bother. I checked out the script in a Barnes and Noble. It’s exactly the movie script. Not worth the price if you intend to buy the movie anyway.

        It is, of course, not the first draft of the script, however. So who really knows?

  5. I disagree with your assessment of the ending–I liked how it ended. I wrote my own review, with a little different slant, a few days ago. But then, I don’t like big Hollywood kiss&happily ever after endings.

  6. Pingback: For an Alternate Perspective - SuperversiveSFSuperversiveSF

  7. Pingback: More Thoughts on Fantastic Beasts | Cirsova

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