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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie review

fantasticbeastsposter“Yesterday, a wizard entered New York with a case. A case full of magical creatures. And unfortunately, some have escaped.” That’s the basic premise for the new film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Bros., November 2016; PG-13), the first in a projected five-movie spin-off series of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise (films reviewed here).

The film takes its name from a “field guide” written by wizard and magizoologist Newt Scamander, mentioned briefly in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a textbook in the Hogwarts curriculum. (In 2001, Rowling published the copy purportedly owned by Harry, with humorous handwritten commentary in the margins, to support the British charity Comic Relief).  Rowling herself wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts; Steve Kloves (screenwriter of all but one of the original eight Potter movies) served as a producer. David Yates, director of the final four Potter films (Order of the Phoenix through Deathly Hallows Part 2), has returned to helm the Fantastic Beasts series.

Set in New York City in 1926 — sixty-five years before Harry Potter enters Hogwarts — the movie revolves around eccentric and awkward Newt Scamander, played affably by Eddie Redmayne. Newt has sailed to New York with a magical suitcase full of fantastic beasts, en route to Arizona, where he plans to release a Thunderbird back into the wild. When one of Newt’s creatures, an incorrigible (and funny and adorable) Niffler, escapes the suitcase in pursuit of anything shiny it can get its paws on, Newt meets Jacob Kowalski, a would-be professional baker and a No-Maj (the American term for muggle or non-magical person). Played by Dan Fogler, Jacob is a bright spot in the film whose sense of humor and childlike wonder are reminiscent of Harry Potter’s own reaction to the world of magic.

After several other beasts get loose in the city, Newt and Jacob meet the Goldstein sisters: Tina, a disgraced Auror who’s been demoted to Wand Permit Officer (played by Katherine Waterston), and Queenie, a lovable bombshell and talented Legilimens (Alison Sudol). Before long, all four get caught up in the Magical Congress of the United States of America’s (MACUSA) attempt to stop an unidentified beast terrorizing the city before it exposes wizardkind.

Meanwhile, anti-wizard sentiment is growing in America, led by the work of the New Salem Preservation Society, known as the NSPS or “Second-Salemers.” One of that group’s adherents in New York is Mary Lou Barebone (disturbingly well-played by Samantha Morton), who spreads the Second-Salemers’ message through pamphlets she has young children distribute. She’s abusive to the orphans she’s adopted, particularly disturbed teenager Credence (portrayed by Ezra Miller of The Perks of Being a Wallflower fame). Miller effectively embodies the spine-chilling Credence, from his slumped physical stance to his piercing eyes. Credence serves as an informant to MACUSA’s Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (played by Colin Farrell, who turns in a solid performance) as Graves tracks the movements of both the Second-Salemers and the destructive beast. Graves’s ongoing manipulation of Credence displays uncomfortable sexual-predator undertones that become all the more disturbing as the movie progresses.

While searching for the loose creatures, Newt and his friends stumble upon a crucial part of Gellert Grindelwald’s scheme to bring wizards out of hiding and into dominance over non-magical people. Prior to the rise of Voldemort, Grindelwald was considered the most dangerous wizard in history. Though he is an ominous presence throughout this film, Grindelwald only makes a brief onscreen appearance. (The casting choice of Johnny Depp to play Grindelwald has had its own share of controversy.) The beginnings of Grindelwald’s frightening bid for power feels like a subplot here, but this story apparently will be a much larger part of future films. As such, Fantastic Beasts at times feels at war with itself as to what it wants to be: lighthearted fantasy or (eerily relevant) commentary on the rise of a totalitarian society. To continue Grindelwald’s story in the sequels, it was necessary for Rowling to develop the unrest that’s building in the magical and non-magical worlds, but pairing it with Newt’s story made for a disjointed film. Newt doesn’t drive the plot so much as get swept up in it and the darker future events being set up.

The Goldstein sisters serve as romantic love interests for Newt and Jacob, but Sudol’s performance is more effective than Waterston’s. While Queenie’s forbidden relationship with No-Maj Jacob is full of humor and heart, Tina’s relationship with Newt feels almost as awkward as Newt himself. Perhaps it’s because Newt (who’s technically in violation of American wizarding law) and Tina (a magical law enforcement agent) are at odds for half the movie, or perhaps it’s because they just don’t understand each other’s wizarding customs. After several instances of miscommunication, Tina says “Mr. Scamander, do you know anything about the wizarding community in America?” At which I thought, “No, he does not — and neither do I!”

That frustration is my main problem with Fantastic Beasts. Prior to the film’s release, Rowling posted writings at fan site Pottermore about the history of magic in North America and the founding of American wizarding school Ilvermorny. This new canon prompted much discussion and some controversy, but I was willing to reserve judgment until I’d seen how the American wizarding world was introduced on screen. My takeaway is that Rowling left too much of its backstory on Pottermore and too much out of the movie.

Whereas in the Potter series we were introduced to the (British) wizarding world at the same time Harry was, Fantastic Beasts throws viewers right into the world assuming they already know how it works. Who doesn’t know about Harry Potter’s world at this point?!, you may be thinking. Well, possibly a lot of people. I purposely didn’t read much about the American wizarding world prior to seeing this film to see if that would matter (and it did). The assumption that viewers will come into the film with prior knowledge of the American and/or British wizarding worlds leaves too much to chance. While tidbits of knowledge are doled out throughout the film, many of the ins and outs of Rowling’s wizarding world are not explained. Yes, we do get some background on the American wizarding world through Tina and Newt’s interactions, but it’s mainly in comparison to the British one. Between this storyline coming chronologically before the Potter series and the fact that it’s the first movie in a new series, this lack of backstory could be a stumbling block for viewers unfamiliar with the original series or with the Pottermore pieces. It would have been nice if Rowling had laid a little more groundwork for how this world works, the characters’ backstories, etc., in the movie itself, so that we would become more invested in following them for four more films. And even without devoting much screen time to this new world’s history, Fantastic Beasts largely felt like a prologue to the Grindelwald storyline to come.

As the name suggests, perhaps the best part of this film were the beasts — boy, were they fantastic! Aside from the Thunderbird and the Niffler, viewers were introduced to an Erumpent, an Occamy, a Demiguise, Bowtruckles, a Swooping Evil, a Murtlap, and Billywigs, to name just a few. The special effects and cinematography imbue the film with Newt’s awe and love for his beasts, which come to spectacularly vivid life on the big screen. I saw it twice, once in IMAX and then in 3D, which made the creatures that much more impressive. Though few new spells were introduced — read a fascinating theory on why American spells are typically unspoken here — there were some particularly awesome magical moments. Viewers discover alongside Jacob that Newt’s suitcase is bigger on the inside (a la Mary Poppins’s carpet bag or the T.A.R.D.I.S.) when he goes to see the amazing habitats where Newt keeps his creatures, for example, and share his awe at fellow baking enthusiast Queenie’s magical strudel-making.

As a fan, I love the chance to reenter Rowling’s world, so I did enjoy this movie (as did others: there was theater-wide applause during the credits at both of my viewings). New material like this always prompts me to go back to the original Potter book series, and I am looking forward to refreshing my knowledge of Newt, Grindelwald, the history of magical beast care, etc., before the next Fantastic Beasts movie debuts in 2018. I just wish Rowling was as meticulous when creating new properties (such as this movie and the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play) as she was with the original series.

Cynthia K. Ritter About Cynthia K. Ritter

Cynthia K. Ritter is associate editor of The Horn Book Guide. She earned a master's degree in children's literature from Simmons College.

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Comments

  1. This was a wonderful beginning to a new chapter in the Wizarding universe. Eddie Redmayne plays a withdrawn wizard, Newt Scamander who finds solace in beasts rather than people, which explains why his character is so reserved. I think other ASD people and children will identify with him as I did, greatly. All around the movie was overshadowed with a time of uncertainty between the two worlds. The beasts themselves were easy to get attached to, and ranged from awe inspiring to adorable. As a fan of the book, I was extremely pleased with the adaptation.

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