One of the peculiarities of human beings is that we tolerate from children a hundred times more than we would ever tolerate from an adult. Screaming, tantrums, diapers, and sleepless night after night are all part of the perpetual expectations of life as a parent. To be fair, this peculiarity is primarily due to the fact that children do not know better and can’t help themselves; and it is fair to assume that adults will act their own age. Which is why it is frustrating when, much like a child in a high chair, the script writers of “Fantastic Beasts” have thrown a bunch of formless mush at the wall in hopes that some of it will stick.
I would attempt a summary, but that would presume that the film had a structure. The most apt parallel to the construction of the film is the title of a book by John Masefield: “ODTAA,” which is an acronym for “One Damn Thing After Another.” Things happening in sequence do not a plot make. But look! Some poorly rendered CG cats! Stuff! Things! Excitement! Magic!
The film begins with a nigh unintelligible escape sequence wherein magical mumbo jumbo succeeds at being magical mumbo jumbo. Off we go to the ministry of magic in England, where we are treated to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Exposition, all the while being treated to images of magic used in everyday life. It could have been charming if it weren’t rendered with all the delicate touch of a bagpipe band being chased by a herd of elephants. It might as well have come with subtitles declaiming “THIS IS IMPORTANT, AND LOOK HOW CHARMING AND MAGICAL IT IS!”
Another misstep of the film is that, without a coherent storyline, it fails at building tension or even being comprehensible in its direction. Characters introduced as important fizzle out into nothing. A character is shackled with magical handcuffs, which are later removed with absolutely no effect on the plot. A personal drama is introduced and resolved without any indication as to why or how. Old characters are saddled with dramatic and mysterious changes of heart for which disbelief does not so much have to be suspended as hung, drawn, and quartered.
None of this is to say that the film is terrible. Oddly enough, for a movie that is such a mess, all of the central characters are portrayed remarkably well. Eddie Redmayne is pitch perfect in the quirky mannerisms of the enigmatic Newt Scamander. The young Dumbledore is devilishly charming, and Johnny Depp exudes a quiet, restrained, and sinister power as Grindelwald. At the climax, there is one truly excellent scene. Immediately marred by magical fire birds.
This last perhaps best encapsulates the film as a whole. There were a handful of interesting ideas and strong performances, but the movie makers seemed to have no idea what to do with them. Intriguing questions are presented as a cliffhanger to the inevitable sequel, with a great deal of potential. Yet all of that is only to the detriment of this film, because its great promise is that the sequel will be better. If the next one was going to be great, they should have just made that movie.