My Rating: 8 out of 10
As someone who was an enormous Harry Potter fan growing up (and still loves the movies and novels), I was both excited and apprehensive when I first heard about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Excited because I was hungry for more stories set in JK Rowling’s fascinating wizarding world (even if they didn’t involve Harry and his friends), but apprehensive because I was nervous that the new franchise, which recently ballooned from a trilogy to a penology, could follow in the footsteps of the Star Wars prequels. When I heard that JKR herself was writing the screenplay for the film, it lessened my apprehension. Even though Fantastic Beasts would be her screenwriting debut, I never doubted her ability as a writer to create an interesting story that would fit in with the Harry Potter narrative that so many people fell in love with over the last 20 years. However, I didn’t anticipate just how in depth the film would go into exploring the wizarding world of 1920s America, which made me see the franchise as less of a cash grab and more of a fully fledged addition to the Harry Potter lore.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows a wizard named Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), who has recently arrived in New York City from London with a suitcase full of magical creatures. After a chance encounter with a down-on-his-luck muggle, or “no-maj” as they are called in America, named Jacob Kowalski (played by Dan Fogler) and an ex-auror, Tina Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston), Newt’s creatures escape into the city and begin to cause mischief. Meanwhile, mysterious attacks around the city have caught the attention of the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) and a group of magic hating muggles known as the Second Salemers. In order to protect his creatures from harm and the secret of the magical world’s existence, Newt teams up with Jacob, Tina, and Queenie (a mind reading witch played by Alison Sudol).
There was so much that I loved about this movie that I’m not quite sure where to start. The combination of the multiple story lines going on simultaneously and then coming together is something that I always enjoy in films and other media. JK Rowling did a great job of getting the audience interested in the different characters and understanding their outlooks while also keeping the story engaging and expanding on the world. I also appreciated that she wrote the film in a way that didn’t look down on the audience. We were dropped right into the thick of the story without any exposition or clunky dialogue trying to explain every little thing we were seeing. We got the information that we needed to follow along and were able to get swept into the story. While there were a couple of shootouts to the Harry Potter films peppered into the movie, Fantastic Beasts worked as a standalone story as well, which will undoubtedly bring new fans into the wizarding franchise.
As I mentioned earlier, the world building was one element that really blew me away and got me excited for another four Fantastic Beasts films. Instead of basing the movie in England like the Harry Potter films, JK Rowling uses the new movie to explore how wizards and witches live in America (in the 1920s, no less). This opens the door for all new lore, but also allows Harry Potter fans to get a better understanding of the history of the world that they fell in love with. Unlike in the Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts is set almost entirely into the muggle/no-maj world. This is partly because the magical and non-magical communities of the time are more intertwined than in the Harry Potter series. One of the biggest plot points of the film is the importance placed on keeping the magical world hidden from muggles in order to prevent a war. In this sense, the fictional world within the story is still being constructed into the world we are familiar with and the wizarding world of 1920s America is being constructed in the real world. The only downside to this extensive world building is that it caused a few scenes to move slower than I would have liked, though this is a fine trade off for setting up a rich and imaginative world that will be explored in detail over the course of five films.
Like many fans of the original Harry Potter stories, the protagonists of Fantastic Beasts are in their twenties, which I feel was an intentional choice. I enjoyed this fact not only because the characters were more relatable to me than high school aged students, but because Newt and Tina are able to easily use spells that Harry and his friends would not have even begun to learn at Hogwarts. This made the story flow more quickly and made the action sequences all the more exciting. (Side note: the special effects in this movie were awesome, especially in relation to said action scenes and the beasts.) In addition, the older characters allowed for a darker tone than the earlier Harry Potter films. The stakes are high from the very beginning and there are several sequences that would be too frightening for young kids. While I personally enjoyed the darker tone, since it helps the fantastical elements relate back to reality, I wonder if it will turn away some families. All in all, I think the film was created with the original Harry Potter fans in mind.
While none of the protagonists in Fantastic Beasts were as iconic as the ones from the Harry Potter films, they were all interesting and dynamic. Tina was tough and brave, but also vulnerable and sweet, which I found to be a nice approach to a female lead in an era where female protagonists are either overly masculinized or overly feminized. Eddie did a great job of becoming Newt, who was quirky and reserved, but also charming in a way. While he comes off as insensitive and brash at first, JK Rowling does a great job of making him extremely likable and easy to route for. Some of my friends said after the film that they weren’t fans of Newt as the main character, which I think stems from the fact that he is a bit of a loner who feels more at home in the company of animals rather than other people. I personally found his personality to be fascinating and multi-faceted, and can’t wait to see what other adventures he has in future films. Jacob the muggle is by far my favorite character and makes a hilarious addition to the team of misfits trying to find the missing creatures and get to the bottom of the incidents going on around NYC.
Of course a review of Fantastic Beasts would not be complete without mentioning the titular creatures themselves. The beasts were all unique and interesting, from their designs to their personalities to the way they fit into the story and interacted with the different characters. Some were cute, others were scary, and some were just bizarre. They added a lot of humor to the film and were the catalyst that brought the protagonists together. Some of my favorite scenes were those involving Newt and his friends trying to capture the creatures and get them to safety within the magical briefcase. However, the beasts were not the central plot element in the film. Instead the film was about the characters and their different views of the world. Newt sees humans as a danger to the creatures that he loves so much and the film does not do much to dissuade the audience from his mindset.
One thing that I love in fiction is when an immersive and fantastical story manages to connect to the real world in meaningful ways, which Fantastic Beasts certainly did. While the script was written a few years ago, there were many plot elements that are relevant to today’s political climate, such as the emergence of groups that hate people for being different and the way Americans are so fixated on specific rules and regulations. The film also explores how American and European cultures different in terms of their approaches to equality and what is important. The part of the story involving the obscurus pointed out how certain cultures will try to force you to suppress parts of who you are, which is never good for the wellbeing of the person who cannot fully embrace themselves. Furthermore, the use of words like terrorist and fanatics to describe Grindelwald were powerful and gave the story a deeper and more realistic subtext. With this said, even Grindelwald is presented as a morally grey character who makes an interesting argument when defending his beliefs and motivations. The beauty of this story is that the characters populating the film are all believable, layered individuals.
While Fantastic Beasts was not focused too much on shocking the audience, there were quite a few surprises that I didn’t see coming. The biggest of which was that Creedence ended up being the host of the obscurus and not his little sister. I was also surprised and saddened at the end when MACUSA arrived in the subway tunnel and killed Creedence instead of letting Newt try to remove the obscurus from him. While it was apparent that Director Graves (played by Colin Farrell) was up to something early on, I didn’t expect him to transform into Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in the end. Depp’s reveal as Grindelwald was awesome, but at the same time I found myself a little disappointed since Colin Farrell had done such a great job. He was such a cool character that I would have preferred Graves had just been a follower of Grindelwald that infiltrated MACUSA rather than the dark wizard himself. Finally, I thought the ending was a bit forced. The fact that the thunderbird was able to wipe the memory of all the muggles in NYC without any troublesome side effects seemed like a bit of a cop out to me. The sequence was definitely cool and emotional when Jacob stepped out into the rain, but I didn’t fully love how the film wrapped things up.
Overall, I highly recommend going to see Fantastic Beasts in theaters to get the most out of your first viewing. There is a lot of detail to see and a ton of a awesome effects that looked incredible on the big screen. If you have a chance to see it in IMAX, I would imagine that the experience would be even better. For anyone who enjoyed the Harry Potter franchise or wants to step into the wizarding world created by JK Rowling, Fantastic Beasts will not disappoint!