Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Director: David Yates
Screenwriter: J.K. Rowling
Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Rated PG | 113 minutes
Release Date: November 28, 2016
Though the adventures of Harry Potter may have come to an end, J.K. Rowling’s legacy lives on. Now fans will be getting at five new spinoffs that expand the Harry Potter universe starting with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel that is set decades before the events of the phenomenon that started it all. While I wasn’t a fan of the original books and never really got into the films themselves, Fantastic Beasts is whimsical and fun, and manages to address a few relevant themes that affect us all. One thing is for sure, it will give anyone without any prior knowledge of the books or films a reason to look at why Harry Potter has remained popular all these years.
My full review below.
Set in New York in 1926, a young wide-eyed Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has set foot on American soil to look for a little bit of downtime before he sets off on his next adventure. You see, Newt is an avid protector of fantastic beasts, and after documenting his findings, he rescues and protects the creatures by putting them in his briefcase. However, he’s completely unaware of what is going on as the Magical Congress of the United States of America is dealing with the Grindelwald that is currently affecting the wizarding community. A dark wizard has forced the magical community to go underground as they fear persecution from the nomaj (think the American version of muggles).
But before Newt can leave America, he has to rescue a few more magical creatures, one in particular that is a bit of a kleptomaniac. He then gets into a briefcase mixup with Jacob Kolowski (Dan Fogler), a cannery nomaj who dreams of becoming a baker. This leads to many problems as Newt is taken into MACUSA custody by Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and is unable to show the contents of his briefcase to the society. Meanwhile, Jacob is accidentally let a few loose from Newt’s briefcase, which gets the notice of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), who leads the New Salem Philanthropic Society (the NSPS, or “The Second-Salemers”), an extremist group whose goals are to expose, persecute, and execute wizard kind.
As a nomaj, I had a lack of understanding of the wizardly world of Harry Potter. That being said, Fantastic Beasts is an excellent introduction for those who are unfamiliar with how that world works. J.K. Rowling’s first venture into screenwriting establishes the rules of how wizards function in America, and that their laws are very much different from those across the Atlantic. Though some of the narrative and characterization are weak, Rowling’s script has me looking forward to what’s in store for Newt. Some of those weaknesses come from a lack of character development. Mostly that comes from the antagonists, who seem to be there just to be nothing more than an obstacle that Newt and the gang as to overcome. Colin Farrell plays Mr. Graves, a top investigator at the MACUSA, who bribes the young Credence (Ezra Miller), the adoptive son of Mary Lou with magical ancestry but no real powers, into turning in Modesty, a young girl who can see deep into people’s thoughts. Graves though charming on the surface is a bit one-dimensional lacking any sort of interest even though he is involved in one of the film’s biggest twists. Then there’s Mary Lou, a rather boring extremist who does nothing but stand on her soapbox or brainwash her kids. While Johnny Depp as Grindenwald has its critics, I remain optimistic that he’ll be a great antagonist in the upcoming sequels.
Thankfully, it is Redmayne, Waterson, Folger, and Alison Sudol, who plays Queenie Goldstein that keep the adventure fun. Newt is a stark defender of these magical creatures and is perhaps the only one who understands them. While the MACUSA has harsh penalties for those who smuggle these creatures in, Newt’s purpose for bringing them here is sincere and all he wants to do is accomplish his goal in peace and be on his way. Of course things don’t go according to plan, and Newt is forced to team up with Tina, the very person who arrested him for failing to register is wand, failing to claim the beasts, and failing to erase Jacob’s mind. But we soon discover that she is a bit flawed, and it is her hope that bringing Newt into custody would restore her reputation with the MACUSA. The two are aided by Jacob, who is still astonished at everything that is happening before his eyes. He’s even caught the attention of the flirtatious Queenie, who has the powers to read minds, although finds it a bit difficult to understand Newt. Queenie is that bright and bubbly lift the film needs at times. So full of charm and warmth, it’s hard not to be drawn to her character as she doesn’t discriminate or hold ill will towards anyone, whether they are a wizard or a nomaj.
Newt’s relationship with the beasts are loving if not inspiring. It is a reflection on how we should come to care and understand that creatures truly are majestic and beautiful. In fact, a lot of the themes are a reflection of what is happening in the world today. From immigration, as we see Newt walking onto a 1920s New York where it is most recognized for people coming from overseas to achieve the American dream, to bigotry, where we see wizards are forced into hiding from the persecution of those who are unwilling to accept their kind. Even MACUSA was progressive long before progressive was a thing. In the film there is an African American MACUSA President, played by Carmen Ejogo. While social commentary may be a bit hard for younger audiences to understand by weaving the world of Harry Potter, the themes of acceptance should hopefully stick with them when they exit the theater.
It may seem like director David Yates is pigeonholing himself, having directed the last four Harry Potter features, plus this one and its upcoming first sequel. But if anyone truly understands how that world functions, its Yates and Rowling. Together, they’ve created a universe that feels vibrant and fresh. Seeing as this is Rowling’s screenwriting debut, it was a chance for her to create a new world based on her previous source material. The set pieces take you back in time, where there was actual art in the architecture and jazzy lounge music filled the air. Let’s not forget the glamorous dapper fashion mixed in with a bit of wizardy.
Though flawed, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a fantastic (yeah, I went there) way to kick off the Harry Potter spinoff and expand its universe. Its whimsical and fun, and the 1920s setting takes us back to a day long forgotten. While it does have some dark themes and ends on a bit of a somber note, Yates is able to navigate through all of that without any difficulty, and makes sure that Rowling’s message will hopefully resonate with audiences. If anything, these films that weave in fantasy or sci-fi with social issues that affect us today are the kinds of films we will need, and I honestly cannot wait to see what the future of Fantastic Beasts has in store for us.