To me, it says something great about the author and her crafted universe that she can take the main character away and people will still flock in droves to see a spinoff story.
The year is 1926, and a dark wizard (pre-Voldemort) is running amok. To protect the No-Majes (American term for Muggles) from harm and themselves from No-Maj fear and persecution, witches and wizards maintain strict secrecy when conducting themselves in public, erasing memories and punishing rule breakers if necessary. Magical creatures, much like regular animals, are widely seen as nuisances at best and pests to be exterminated at the very worst. They can’t be easily controlled, reasoned with, or predicted, and many people lack an understanding of them outside of the potential harm they could do (such as toxicity).
Something unknown and magical begins terrorizing New York City, making it difficult to reassure and quiet the No-Majes. Meanwhile, a British wizard named Newt Scamander comes to the US to return one of the magical creatures he looks after to the wild. One gets loose, and through a series of further mishaps and misunderstandings involving other creatures, the entire Wizarding World is on the verge of exposure.
It also doesn’t help that one very religious woman is pushing anti-magical sentiment, using her family of adopted orphans to help her spread the word.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them feels more adult than some of its predecessors, and yet its adult characters behave with almost childish simplicity at times. Newt, the main character, is off in his own little world (fitting, perhaps, as the great-grandfather of Luna Lovegood). Tina, an American witch and demoted Auror, is intelligent and firm but extremely timid and seemingly helpless when higher-ranking wizards are involved. Kowalski, a No-Maj factory worker looking to become a baker, is in awe of the community he is opened up to, and Queenie, Tina’s sister, is a kind, quick-thinking woman hiding behind a mask of beauty and bubble-headedness. They come together well, however, helping one another find strength when each is thrust out of his or her element.
The setting is cool. I like the music and the fashion of America’s Roaring 20’s, and the overall fantasy of Harry Potter (that you’re destined for something greater and there is a whole world waiting for you to come and explore it) is definitely enriched by adding some history to the screen. A world feels more developed, more real to its audience, when spiced with stories, songs, legends, and history.
And yay, there’s magic in America too! Although, I guess that witches and wizards are a lot more progressive than No-Majes, seeing as they have a woman president barely 6 years after the 19th Amendment was passed.
I only have a few small complaints about the execution. Many of the creatures’s names are said so quietly/quickly that they are easy to forget, and you desperately hope that someone will bring them up again. For a film called Fantastic Beasts, I barely knew or remembered the names of more than two of them.
As with a lot of sequel/prequel fare, namedropping other characters/plot points/things in the series is pretty blatant and oftentimes meaningless within the story itself. Did we have to see Grindelwald’s Deathly Hallows necklace (and by ‘we’, I mean anyone; fans of the books, movies, both, or the general movie-going public)? Did we need to know that the only professor at Hogwarts that really liked Newt was Dumbledore? For one thing, I’m sure we all guessed the same thing before we even heard the name said aloud – Dumbledore is always the champion of the underdogs, after all, and Graves did say “one professor at Hogwarts who defended (Newt)” – and for another, what purpose did it serve outside of shallow fan service?
At least when books do that kind of thing, it’s less overt. It makes you feel smart for having paid attention, or excited by a really good, talented author who knows how to weave a narrative together.
But again, that’s a flaw with most follow-up films in general, and Fantastic Beasts‘ is by no means the worst offender.
The tone can be a little bit wonky, much like Newt himself. I don’t mind this so much, but it is weird watching a man about to be crushed, impaled, and/or humped by a giant rhino creature with such whimsical music carrying on in the background.
What I call the A Plot (main issue) and the B Plot (secondary issue) didn’t really have much to do with one another until the end. It was almost like watching two different movies being slowly knit together. And, Slight Spoiler Warning Here: the way that America eradicates dangerous wizards is extremely cruel and disturbing. I’m surprised it didn’t give me nightmares afterward. End Spoiler.
Otherwise, the film is hilarious and lots of fun to watch. It really did feel like being in a different part of the same universe, which is great. As much as I love Harry Potter, his story is pretty much over. He did the thing he was destined to do, so anything else will feel unnecessary. But the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is still young, and Harry himself was only a tiny part of it, so I am more than happy to see where else J.K. Rowling can go from here.
Hopefully this is one of David Yates’ better cinematic adaptations of her work, but I won’t know until I read the original book. 😛
*All images belong to Warner Bros. Studios.