Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
It’s hard not to be a cynic when it comes to the film business today. Original properties are luxuries from the past, and lately it’s a borderline miracle when a film sneaks into theaters from a major distributor that’s not based on anything. Sequels have been around forever, but notice how much more frequent they are every year? Literally anything that makes even the slightest profit gets a green-lit continuation, and any franchise that’s beloved and that has a definitive ending can never stay dormant for long.
I like plenty of sequels and prequels, even the occasional remake. And I don’t mind this new trend of building more than just a franchise but an actual universe of stories that can feasibly go on forever. Marvel has handled their properties extremely well, and at the moment I’m thrilled we’re getting a new Star Wars movie every year (not so sure how I’ll feel about that in, say, 2027).
But there is starting to be the sense that major Hollywood movies aren’t really movies anymore; they’re products meant to be packaged and purchased. I’m happy that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David Yates (the last four Harry Potter movies) and scripted by J.K. Rowling herself, tries to be its own entity, one so far removed from Harry Potter that all we get are a few throwaway references to Dumbledore and Hogwarts. But as imaginative and entertaining and quirky as the movie is, I did get the feeling while watching it that I was looking more at a product of the Wizarding World universe than an actual movie, a product that’s meant to set up a new series of films rather than tell its own singular compelling story.
Let’s start with the good. Yates is a talented director, but I did feel that he brought a coldness to the last four Harry Potter movies that at times became borderline depressing, especially in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. His style fit the tone of the books well enough, but there wasn’t the wonder and spontaneity of the first four films.
Therefore, I was happy to see Yates loosen up a bit in this film, allowing plenty of scenes of humor and creatures galore. I’d say Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in many ways more of a kid film overall than anything in the franchise since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, although that comment does have some reservations, which I’ll discuss below. I enjoyed the first half of the film more than the second, and that has a lot to do with the light touch Yates brings to it.
There is a lot more to like about this film, including the actors chosen and the well-chosen time period. Most memorable are Dan Fogler as Kowalski, a Muggle who accidentally becomes a part of the magical proceedings, and the radiant Alison Sudol, who plays his unexpected love interest. These two create a nice chemistry together that plays well in the second half. I also appreciated the 1920s time period, which allows for a whole new take on the magic phenomena, particularly in regards to the politics of the era, as well as the job market and modes of transportation.
Unfortunately the film comes up short in a few areas. As I said before, I liked the lighter touch of the early scenes, but the film takes a sharp turn halfway through, moments of child abuse, graphic deaths, and demonic figures sweeping through the streets so extremely dark that they feel tonally off from what’s come before. I’m all for horrific moments in a film aimed at a younger audience, but there needed more set-up for this tonal shift early on, not scene after scene of Newt chasing after cute, cuddly creatures.
Another problem I had with the movie was its two leads, who are too bland in my eyes to carry a huge franchise like this. Eddie Redmayne does what he can as the soft-spoken protagonist, but he is literally hard to hear at times, and doesn’t ultimately have the kind of presence and energy a major character like this needs. Even worse is Katherine Waterston as Tina, a character that came off as a blank to me from beginning to end. And that’s not a knock on the actress — she’s clearly talented — but the character itself just never pops off the screen the way the main characters of the Harry Potter films always do. Colin Farrell also is pretty weak, and there’s an Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus-like reversal at the end that was so jarring it took me right out of the movie.
But the worst sin Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them makes is that it’s forgettable. It’s fun to watch at times, with a steady pace and fantastic production design, but it never fully drew me in the way the eight Harry Potter films did. The movie ends on an uplifting note of promise, but I couldn’t help but think, that’s it?
Rowling clearly has a grasp of her world like few authors in history have before, and there seems with this film to be the possibility of much better movies set in this universe. But are more movies even necessary? It didn’t help that before this film was released that the studio announced Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was getting four — count them, four — sequels, all directed by Yates, all scripted by Rowling, coming out like clockwork every other Thanksgiving, and lo and behold, the second one is coming later this year. I’ll probably see the next one, but I sure hope it feels less like a product that this merely adequate introduction. Call me a cynic if you must, but I wanted more.
Watching Like a Writer
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them made me think a lot about time periods in my fiction. In all the novels and short stories I’ve written, I’ve only gone back in time once… to 1999.
I guess you could say I’m scared to explore a time period before I was born, not wanting to mess up details that may take readers out of the story I’m trying to tell.
One element that works well in this film is the 1920s time period, and I think Rowling did a great job integrating the eccentricities of her magic world with a period far different than the one her Harry Potter series was set in.
Think of a story you’d love to tell that’s set in a decade different from the one we’re in now.
What would the story be about, and what would be the protagonist’s goal?