Harry Potter is back in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them! No, wait, this isn’t The Cursed Child, though it is filled all of your favorite Harry Potter characters! Ok, maybe not, but you might recognize a few names here or there. But it is set in the beloved world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series! Well alright, it’s actually set in the 1920s in New York, filled with unfamiliar magical slang and completely foreign to both our protagonist and to viewers. Still, this is the Harry Potter spinoff that everyone has yearned for since the series concluded! No, it’s not? So why should anyone care about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, when it seemingly lacks everything that audiences grew to love about the Harry Potter saga? For starters, it’s an exciting, dark, fun, funny, emotional, and immensely creative film set in a rich and fascinating world that is strong enough to stand on its own. It deepens and broadens the Harry Potter universe, showing us previously unexplored aspects, locations, and eras of the wizarding world providing new insights and a greater context for the events that shaped the life of the Boy Who Lived. And it kicks off a five film series in a way that’s far more topical, political, relevant, and just more interesting than any of the Harry Potter films that came before (matching the tone of the later books much more closely than the movies). And most importantly to me at least, this is the story that J.K. Rowling wanted to tell, that she thought would be the most compelling way to expand and explore the universe she created. As far as I’m concerned she was right, and I can’t wait to see more.
The year is 1926, over 70 years before the Battle of Hogwarts in which Harry Potter finally defeated Voldemort, and stories of the dark wizard Grindelwald’s quest for power have cast a shadow as far as America, where the delicate balance of secrecy separating witches and wizards from those without magic is on the verge of collapsing. In New York a string of magical attacks and catastrophes caused by an unknown force has caused the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) to clamp down in their enforcement of laws intended to maintain that secrecy, from the banning of all magical creatures to prohibitions on relations between those with magic and those without. Meanwhile a small but vocal group of non-magic New Yorkers has correctly attributed the disasters to the existence of magic, and leads rallies in the streets calling for a return to the methods of the Salem Witch Trials, rooting out those with magic and putting them to death. Into this environment of fear, suspicion, and hostility walks Newt Scamander and his wondrous briefcase full of trouble.
Scamander has traveled to New York by boat from England on a secret mission with a case filled with all manner of magical creatures he has collected from around the world in his efforts to study and protect these fantastic beasts. Unfortunately for Newt and potentially for New York as a whole, his menagerie has a tendency to escape, particularly when a chance encounter leads to him accidentally switching cases with a No-Maj (which Newt learns is the American term for muggle) named Jacob, who precedes to open the case and set all sorts of bizarre critters loose on the city. With the wizarding world and the No-Maj world just a push away from outright war, this is the worst possible moment for magical creatures to be causing mischief throughout New York, and it is up to Newt and Jacob, along with a disgraced auror from MACUSA named Tina and her eccentric sister Queenie, to corral the beasts back into Newt’s case before the political situation explodes. But between the unexplained disasters, the anti-witchcraft crusaders, and a dark shadow on the rise, this team of misfit heroes find themselves caught up in something larger than they had imagined.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has quite a few hurdles to clear in order to be considered a success. It must introduce a slew of new characters, a new time period, and a new setting into an existing universe. It must work as a standalone film while simultaneously launching a new franchise. It has to be familiar enough to capitalize on audiences’ loyalty to Harry Potter but different enough that it doesn’t feel like a retread. It has to capture what people loved about the series seemingly without any of the building blocks that helped make it a success or even the words “Harry Potter” in the title. But most importantly it has to have a reason for existing; there must be a purpose to the story or else it will just feel like it’s cashing in on a famous franchise. The fact that Fantastic Beasts succeeds (to varying amounts) on all of these levels is fairly miraculous, and a testament to the talent of the team behind the film and particularly the storytelling ability of J.K. Rowling, who this time wrote the screenplay for the film herself. She’s also brought back director David Yates, who helmed the final four Harry Potter films, creating a standard look and feel for the cinematic universe after a wildly varying first half of the series, and allowing things to cohesively build towards the ultimate finale. Yates’s involvement helps smooth the transition from Harry Potter to Fantastic Beasts, giving it a similar style and visual language to the most recent films despite the wildly different story.
Thankfully the team has rounded up an excellent cast to help sell this new story, even if some of them are put to better use than others. Leading the way is Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, who makes the magizoologist bumbling and awkward yet endearing, passionate, and determined. Redmayne really commits to the role, and perfectly captures the feeling of a man much more comfortable with his creature companions than with the humans around him. He’s able to bring big laughs, particularly when interacting with his various beasts, but also taps into the larger emotions of the story. He also has an excellent foil in Dan Fogler’s No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, who is unwittingly swept up in the adventure and perceivers through a wide variety of dizzying magical revelations with cheerful stoicism, a sense of wonder, and endless questions. Katherine Waterston is underused as Tina, the disgraced auror trying to redeem herself in the eyes of MACUSA as well as keep the peace in New York, and I wish her part had been a little more fleshed out, but Alison Sudol steals the show as Tina’s sister Queenie, who is the free spirit opposite to Tina’s straight-laced sense of duty and who has a surprising insightfulness. Colin Farrell brings a sense of mystery and menace to Percival Graves, the head of magical security for MACUSA, who is tasked with solving the mystery of the disasters plaguing the city, while Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller stand out as the leader of the anti-witchcraft movement and her adopted son. On the other hand, Jon Voight’s appearance as a No-Maj newspaper magnate whose son is running for congress feels undeveloped in the film, although I suspect he’ll have a continuing role to play in the series going forward.
There are many praiseworthy elements to the film, from the creative design of Newt’s various beasts, to the sets and costuming that make 1920s magical New York a believable place that could exist alongside magical London, to James Newton Howard’s excellent score with just the right echoes to previous Harry Potter cues, but for me it all comes down to J.K. Rowling. Her fingerprints are all over the film, and her increased presence as a part of the production makes all the difference. Rather than watching an interpretation of her ideas instead we’re hearing her words and watching her scenes and creations straight from the screenplay. It gives the film a level of authenticity that it would otherwise have lacked, but it goes deeper than that. Rowling’s strengths as a writer are on full display here, from clever wordplay and her unique brand of humor to the endlessly inventive way she can craft a world and a story and make them relevant. The most disappointing aspect of the Harry Potter films was the way they stripped Rowling from the story (sometimes by necessity for compact storytelling, other times for seemingly no reason at all), leaving the movies with the basic plot and characters but missing the nuance, the commentary, and the unique flavor of her writing from the books. I’m of the opinion that the 8 films as a whole are generally as good as one can reasonably expect from such a complicated adaptation, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t lacking in places, sometimes severely.
Instead with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them we’ve got a story that’s not only 100% canon alongside the books, but also the story Rowling wanted to tell. I’m sure plenty of people would rather have a different Harry Potter spinoff, whether a sequel series involving the next generation of Potters at Hogwarts, or else the story of Harry’s parents and the young Marauders. But we got Fantastic Beasts, a story Rowling felt would be not only interesting and entertaining, but also important to the universe’s mythology as a whole. It accomplishes both of those things, but in trademark Rowling fashion it also does more. As with the best moments of Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts is a highly political story that is immensely relevant to the current state of today’s society and discourse. It’s dark, full of conflict, and constantly on edge about to explode, yet hope survives. It’s filled with messages of tolerance, of diversity, and of inclusion, in addition to its strong environmental themes embodied by Newt, the wildlife researcher and rehabilitator who only seeks to study and protect the wonderful animals of our planet and the habitats where they thrive.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Fantastic Beasts is how unconventional and bold it is, particularly when compared with other recent franchise films. When watching Doctor Strange I couldn’t help but think that we’ve seen this story before, despite its visual creativity, as it’s basically a rehash of Tony Stark’s origin story in Iron Man. Even a smash hit like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a retread of the same story beats from the original Star Wars, while Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence not only had nothing new to say but were a significant step backwards seemingly content to merely cash in on nostalgia. Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, gives us unconventional heroes, either socially inept and awkward, disgraced, or lacking in any useful skills, and sets them on an adventure wholly different than those undertaken by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Instead of flooding us with familiar sights and sounds it uses a new setting to explore new aspects of the world Rowling created while also providing new parallels for our own society. It takes political stances on everything from the environment to segregation to the death penalty, rather than worrying about potentially offending a paying customer. And as a franchise builder it sets up a story that’s primed to take things in even more new directions with threats and motivations very different from the inevitably Harry vs Voldemort battle we’ve previously seen.
But what I love most about Fantastic Beasts is surely likely to frustrate others: it never holds your hand. While I have no doubt that anyone would enjoy the movie, no matter their level of familiarity with Harry Potter, to fully appreciate it requires work from the audience. Don’t expect it to explain who Grindelwald is and why his name strikes fear into the hearts of MACUSA. If you want to know, read the Harry Potter books. Confused about the politics and history of magic in the United States? Rowling and company have spent the last year filling in all of the backstory on Pottermore. I know many people will feel that a movie should be self-contained, and that it’s not fair on the audience to expect them to do homework before watching, but I greatly appreciate this different approach. I wouldn’t want all films to be like this, but in this particular case it acknowledges the reality of the immensely complex world Rowling created for her witches and wizards, as well as the amount of thought and planning she’s put into its collected works. This approach both acknowledges the world-building that’s already taken place, and allows backstory that is interesting and important but not especially relevant to the story being told in the film to be set aside, to be read if people wish to but otherwise leaving the film uncluttered and allowing it to move more quickly into the story. It’s the sort of thing Marvel has flirted with with their Cinematic Universe, but they’ve never been able to fully commit to forcing people to see all of their films or watch all of their TV series in order to fully appreciate each new entry.
Between the storytelling complexity, the franchise building, the political commentary, and the expanded world-building, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fun, clever, entertaining ride. It tells its own story, yet it ties expertly into the larger Harry Potter universe. It tells a contained story while hinting at larger things to come. It’s a dark, adult-oriented film, but with plenty of humor and heart to provide balance. It gives us a host of compelling new characters along with some wonderfully designed and interesting creatures. And it has moments that will take your breath away, not through endless spectacle but through weaving storytelling, production design, performance, and effects to give us something we’ve never seen before. (Seriously, the inside of Newt’s case is absolutely amazing.) It may not be for everyone, it may have some flaws, and it will undoubtedly never inspire as much devotion as the Harry Potter series, but I found it refreshing and exactly the way I wanted to return to the wizarding world once again. It’s not only a story which leaves me impatiently waiting for the next installment, but I find myself eager to return to the theater to watch Fantastic Beasts again.