It’s been five years since the Harry Potter films ended but Warner Brothers invites us to enter the wizarding world of J. K. Rowling once again. Is this a new story worth exploring, or is it a needless money-grabbing prequel? Well, kind of both.
The original film series, following the book closely, wrapped up rather nicely, and the recent Harry Potter and the Cursed Child explores the future of Potter and company on stage. What does Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them have that these iterations do not? Well I can tell you what it doesn’t have – Harry Potter. The film is inspired by the in-universe textbook and IRL pamphlet of the same name. Following the escapades of author and magical creature activist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in New York City during the roaring 20’s. It’s an excuse to create a magical period piece, revisit the world of Potter, and explore the wizarding community of America all in one. An excuse, yes, but not necessarily a bad one.
Without going deep into spoiler territory, the trailers are deceptive. The official plot synopsis and the direction the trailers take you is something along the lines of “Likable scalawag, Newt Scamander, accidentally lets loose some crazy magical creatures in old timey NYC and spends the next two plus hours trying to catch them.” While Newt – more outcast than rascal – does indeed lose a few of his fantastic beasts in the city, and dealing with the situation drives a fair amount of the onscreen action, the movie is actually about quite a bit more than that. Politics, anti-magic paranoia, a pending M
uggle No-Maj vs wizard war, powerful forces lurking in the shadows, and the mysterious evil Grindelwald are all in play here.
Growing up with the original Potter fanbase, Fantastic Beasts, despite its whimsical outward appearance, is as much or more geared to adults as children. There are some dark themes here, especially when it comes to tackling a situation in which those with magical powers are forced to repress who they are inside out of fear of judgement and violence from those around them. Sounds like some sort of allegory if you ask me. Radical Puritanical forces are as much at play as the magical ones (both good and bad), and are not represented kindly. With obvious intention however, unless I missed something, there is no mention of religion, even if the beliefs of those involved in the “Second Salem” propaganda group are heavily implied. It makes for some interesting conflict that some may feel uncomfortable with, but certainly feels authentic to the scenario.
Eddie Redmayne is immensely and immediately likeable as the intrepid Scamander, doing his best to wash away any memories we may still have of Jupiter Ascending. It’s the supporting cast, actually, that tends to steal the show however. Most specifically Dan Fogler as the awkward yet heartwarming No-Maj Jacob Kowalski and Alison Sudol as Queenie – a flirty flapper who can read minds. Colin Farrell ironically plays an American official and Ezra Miller delivers a seat squirming performance as the adopted son of the founder of the Second Salem group.
The magical rules and such flounder a bit, sacrificed in the name of fast paced action and humor. Things work when convenient with the occasional deus ex machina thrown in there, and don’t when they aren’t. Maybe I’m being overly picky.
The setting feels something less than authentic, as if an outsider was trying to recreate 1920’s America from a handful of films and pictures which is probably close to the truth since Rowling herself took over screenwriting duties here. It’s not a terrible thing, it’s just not quite as tangible as the portrayal of her modern day British settings of the other books and movies. I would have loved to delve into the period more and learn about the inner workings of MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) and the seedy magical underground that reminded me of certain scenes from the Men in Black franchise. Instead we are mostly treated to the admittedly enjoyable, if a bit fluffy, scavenger (Scamander?) hunt, checking off one missing beastie after another while more important things are going on off on the sidelines.
Can I really fault the movie for being fun though? Yes I wish it was a bit more of one thing and less of another, but it combines whimsy and darkness in a mostly successful whirlwind of a film that only drags occasionally despite a nearly two and a quarter hour runtime. The best and most interesting is yet to come, however, if what is being set up comes to pass. The “Fantastic Beasts” moniker may no longer be suitable for the subsequent films though as they promise to include adventures into some very dark political and literal wars within the wizarding communities of the world.
There are enough nods to established Potter lore that fans of the series will enjoy connecting the dots, but one could very easily jump right in with this movie with little to no prior knowledge of the franchise.
So was this story necessary? No, not at all, though it may very well add a lot of crucial backstory to the world of Potter later on. Was it a cashgrab? Probably – Warner Brothers doesn’t have much else going for it and they needed this no-brainer of a money maker. That said, it is a very well done, enjoyable film that grown up Potter fans will gobble down with gusto, serving as an appetizer for what’s yet to come in the ever expanding universe of Rowling’s creations, and newcomers will enjoy it just as much.
Mrs. Hamster says:
“I hate to make a pun, but this movie is fantastic. Finally, a movie for people (like me) who grew up as Harry Potter fans and were disappointed with the other movies because they didn’t follow the book enough. This time there’s no book to live up to, so it can just be a story in the Harry Potter world. Super fans will enjoy it!”
Brother Hamster did not screen this film
My rating: Three out of five hats
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them apparates into over 4,000 theaters, including IMAX 3D, November 17