Okay Beasts that Have Already Been Found and Identified
JK Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a scathing dissertation of American conservatism and elitism. It is a post-9/11 world of fear and PC-culture-in-negative complete with a color-coded threat-level warning system and closeted wizards and witches destroying themselves just to fit in. There is a heightened sense of fear among the wizarding-world and the human-world after the end of the Great War (the non-magical WWI). There are regulations and laws so strict to even mention them is to draw scrutiny from an oppressive government. An organization so bent on creating peace they are unable to see that they're actually causing the chaos. There's denial despite evidence. Poor race-relations. Even hints of gun-culture and the American "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality. It's just too bad the movie isn't as interesting as its implications.
This movie is not about Newt Scarmander, author of the would-be textbook "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." In fact it's not even about fantastic beasts and where to find them at all. There are fantastic beasts, and there is an arbitrary scavenger hunt for some that break loose of Newt's menagerie in his embiggened suitcase. You get that much from the trailers, I'm not spoiling anything. Newt is not the main character and neither are his beasts. In fact, I'm not certain there is a main character at all.
There are at least three prime plot points going on here and Newt is certainly one of them, but even in his time on screen, he is doing nothing to further the plot. He is the expositor. Strangely, most of his exposition is actually toward people who should know these things in the world, despite building in an audience-surrogate of a nomaj sidekick. Nomaj as you've no doubt read by now is American for muggle (though despite addressing a possible spoiler, "squib" is recognizable to an American wizard, so why is that particular moniker unchanged?). But the nomaj is quicker to accept what he does learn than the higher ranking wizarding officials who seem to dismiss the severity of the situation at hand within the movie. People you would expect, within the world, to fully understand that in the magical world, empirical evidence is not exactly a requirement for justification of action.
The second and third plot points tie back to Newt and his quest to clean up his very own mess by the end, but a creature of unknown origin is reeking havoc on NYC and muggle police as well as magical officials refuse to see a problem, dismissing events as natural disasters out of their control and refusing to do anything about it regardless. This screams of today's political climate of doing nothing about environmental and humanitarian disasters despite overwhelming evidence they are manmade and will require man's intervention. But again, the dismissing of the thing is the point here, the movie never really puts a pin in it, see?
There's a lot of high concept, a lot of meat on the bone, but it's held out of reach and we're given mere morsels. In fact, the plot points we're fed on this more interesting backdrop make it difficult to really understand what the point of it all is. By the end, something greater is revealed that will no doubt make for an interesting history to explore in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but this movie is unnecessary. It fails to deliver on beasts, fantastical or not, nor is there any sort of safari-ing to find them. This does not reveal how Newt came to author his book, it only shows him as a quaint collector of odd, living baubles.
Despite the character not being very central to his own story, he does pose an interesting tidbit: there is most certainly autism among wizards. What we classically recognize as someone suffering along the spectrum known as Asperger's, Newt is hard-pressed in forming human attachment and interactions, focused on his animals and exceeding preternaturally in information about them. Where that isn't explored or spelled outright, it's pretty clear Newt is socially handicapped. And that certainly makes him difficult to connect to. That's not to say an autistic zoologist wouldn't be interesting or that an autistic individual at all wouldn't be a compelling protagonist. One of my favorite sitcoms, Community, made a darling out of Danny Pudi's character Abed, who showed signs of Asperger's. And it's not just Newt that suffers from un-compelling character arches. Every other character is a thin cloak draped over something more interesting. You can tell there's a grand piano under there, but the tarp is nailed to the floor.
The movie isn't bad, the trappings are all there and the Wizarding World is certainly something I would like to see fleshed out and given life beyond the walls of Hogwarts and borders of England. I'm just sad to see yet another film fail to capitalize on promise. Not any promises producers made, but the promise of something interesting going on within the film itself; the background is more interesting than the characters dancing before it. This is yet another film peppering in a little bit of everything in an effort to please as many people as possible so that it ends up canceling more compelling elements to just come out...plain.
This is like X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, James Bond's SPECTRE, and yes, I dare say, Star Wars The Force Awakens. They are fine. They are good. But being just okay in order to appease every fan does not further the story nor does it push the envelope or raise the stakes. This aggressive mediocrity is being rewarded by being good enough to fill theaters, but burnout is going to set in and I'm afraid legitimately good ideas are being trimmed to appease a nebulous mass instead of striving for greater things. "Don't alienate the fans and don't make newcomers think too hard." I'd much rather have a guttural reaction to a thing, good or bad, than just feel blasé about it.
If you're going to see a movie involving magic-wielding heroes this Fall, invest in Doctor Strange instead. Yes, it's another origin tale. Yes, Marvel is retreading ground it's already covered. And yes, I could make the argument it is aggressively mediocre as well, but! At least Marvel has clothed itself in something entertaining and fun.
As a caveat and final thought, I think Fantastic Beasts would have been better served as a television program with Newt actually going on a worldwide safari while the greater threat swells up around him. Just something to think about, JK...if you read this.