When the credits rolled after “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II”, I thought I would never again see another “Harry Potter” film on the silver screen. It appears I was mistaken.
Based on one of Harry’s textbooks, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the newest addition to the Wizarding World. The film takes place almost 70 years before Harry gets his Hogwarts letter, and follows the misadventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). With a mission to return one of his beasts to the Great American Plains, Newt finds himself in New York City, where he gets caught up in a suitcase snafu with the muggle—or as American wizards would say, “no-maj”—Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), resulting in the release of magical creatures throughout New York. Newt teams up with Jacob and the magical sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol) to protect his collection of beasts and combat a force threatening to expose the Wizarding World.
In an age of prequels and sequels, to say I was concerned about this movie would be an understatement. How could “Fantastic Beasts” ever compare to the original “Harry Potter” films which have become staples in popular culture throughout the globe? But once again, J.K. Rowling proves herself an adept and imaginative storyteller as she makes what could have easily been a movie chock full of fan-service and easter eggs into an exciting return to the Wizarding World.
Rowling’s imagination shines brightest in the scenes with the eponymous beasts, which truly are fantastic. Many are also quite adorable, and I foresee many “Niffler” and “Bowtruckle” stuffed animals in the near future. Visual effects supervisor Tim Burke remains grounded in his CGI work, and the majestic “Thunderbird” is particularly breathtaking. Without a doubt, the movie is at its best when the beasts are around. It is unabashedly entertaining to watch Newt interact with his critters as he explains to an awed Kowalski that he wishes foremost to help people understand his beasts and protect them from the most dangerous predators in the world: humans.
Aside from the beasts, the movie also benefits from a compelling set of main characters. Redmayne, per usual, does not disappoint as he makes a lovable hero out of the awkward Newt. He gives a nuanced performance, but beneath his timidness lies an underlying love and passion which truly comes to life whenever his beasts come out to play. Newt is no Harry Potter, but he stands on his own as an unlikely, yet compelling hero. Waterson and Sudol are also praiseworthy, but the standout amongst the main cast is Fogler’s Kowalski. Kowalski is the average everyman and “audience surrogate”—a figure who moviegoers can relate to. At first glance his role could be described as “comic relief,” but Kowalski ultimately provides a lot more than just laughs. In the end, Kowalski is a lovable and charismatic character who compliments Newt’s awkwardness quite well. However, it is too early to tell if this group of four will prove as memorable as the golden trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione from the original films—if, of course, they return at all. While “Fantastic Beasts” clearly points to a sequel, it leaves several options open regarding important questions like “who?” and “what?” and “when?”.
In spite of its many strengths, including David Yates’ familiar and confident directing and James Newton Howard’s whimsical score, which takes cues from John Williams’ iconic theme, “Fantastic Beasts” still falls short of “Harry Potter” greatness. Most of the problem stems from a plot which is bogged down by too many storylines and too many characters. All of the film’s storylines—Newt’s adventures, the tensions developing within the Magical American Congress and the rise of the Second Salem movement—have potential, but there is clearly too much material to fit into one movie. Then again, there are four movies to follow, so “Fantastic Beasts” has to establish an array of characters and plot points. This was the inevitable result. However, there is a conflict between the bright and optimistic tone of Newt’s story and the more mature themes in the other storylines.
“Fantastic Beasts” also suffers from an underused setting and an underdeveloped world. The film is set right in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, and in New York no less, but Rowling and Yates do not capitalize on this and fail to define the time period. While some of the movie’s scenes scream 1920s, such as when Newt and the crew venture into a speakeasy, others seem like they could be set in the 1940s or even the 1890s. Similarly, while Central Park and Fifth Avenue make cameo appearances, not much else of the film is definitively “New York”. In many ways, the film’s worldbuilding leaves quite a lot to be desired. Early on, Tina poses this question to Newt: “Do you know anything about the Wizarding World in America?” By the time the credits roll, this question is still left largely unanswered. Of course, anyone interested can go online and find a veritable encyclopedia on Pottermore, but the film itself seems like a missed opportunity in this regard. For example, the US Hogwarts equivalent, Ilvermorny, only gets the barest of passing mentions.
In spite of its flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed “Fantastic Beasts” and I would consider it a stronger and better film than some of the weaker films of the original series, such as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I”. A major difference between the two series lies in the dark themes which lie beneath the colorful beasts. Unlike “Harry Potter” which slowly but surely grew more dark and intense as the films progressed, “Fantastic Beasts” expresses no qualms in exploring mature and dark areas right from the start. In “Fantastic Beasts”, issues of segregation and class differences come to the forefront, themes which are particularly relevant of late. At the end of the film, the Wizarding community makes a choice to protect their world with little to no regard of the consequences it may have on the “no-maj” world. This poses the question: how far should wizards be able to go in order to protect their secrecy? Without a doubt, Rowling will continue to present these issues to audiences, which means the “Fantastic Beasts” saga may end up a more mature series. Ultimately, of course, only time will tell.