Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a lot to live up to. Not only does it follow up the Harry Potter films, which are, for the most part, well received by critics and fans alike, it is our first on film glimpse of the bigger wizarding world outside of the central setting of a school in England. With J.K. Rowling herself penning the story and screenplay it seemed like a no-brainer, but the lackluster reception of her play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child managed to put some fear and trepidation into those of us that had very high hopes for Fantastic Beasts. Is Rowling a one trick pony?
As it turns out, she is not.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, with a surprisingly strong supporting cast that includes Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller. David Yates returns to the Potter universe to direct. Yates has had great success in this universe, and this film is no exception.
The story, on the surface, is simple enough. Newt (Redmayne) travels from England to New York in search of a magical beast to study, and it just so happens New York is the only place to go to find it. Shortly after arriving, a chance encounter with a down on his luck WWI veteran played by Fogler sets our story into motion. After some chaos at a bank, the two characters accidentally swap briefcases. The chaos is witnessed by an American witch, Tina (Waterston) that happens to be a disgraced ex-auror for the Magical Congress of the United States of America, our very own version of the Ministry of Magic. She quickly hauls Newt into their headquarters where we meet Graves (Farrell), a high ranking official that works closely with President Seraphina Picquery played by Carman Ejogo.
Due to being disgraced by the MACUSA Tina’s catch is released. Immediately Newt goes searching for his briefcase, only to find that it’s been opened and some of the beasts have escaped. Now, with the help of a NoMaj (muggle) sidekick, he must recapture the creatures. Throughout the movie, we see the darkness that comes from fanaticism, in the form of the New Salem group that hates witches and demands that they actually exist. You even have a little girl that goes around singing about burning and hanging witches. We see segregation in the form of the American wizarding law that forbids magical people from marrying non-magical people. The film in its second act becomes more of a political thriller. In a good way.
To go any further in discussing the story, would be a spoiler because not everything is what it appears to be.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a wonderfully acted and directed movie. It goes beyond just being another blockbuster. It’s also the most adult film in the Potter-verse. The film manages to hit on topics that have recently been brought forth in today’s America. There are themes of hate, xenophobia, segregation, fanaticism and oppression. The tone is quite dark at times but, it’s never overbearing or depressing. Because, at the end of the day, the main themes are love, hope, and friendship.
What could have ended up being just another soulless, Hollywood cash grab, turns into a magical journey that shows the importance of hope and love in the darkest of times. A film that shows us that oppression often gives more fuel to the things that scare us. It teaches us that through love and acceptance, the very things we are scared of wouldn’t exist. Rowling’s story is dark, funny and full of heart. It reaches into the realm of scathing satire with relative ease, showing us that the creatures are not necessarily the beasts of this tale.
Old New York looks beautiful and tangible. The creature designs are fun and whimsical. Sprinkled throughout are subtle nods to the Harry Potter movies. Yates brings together all the elements that made some of the later Potter movies wonderful and then somehow elevates it. It’s definitely a Potter-verse movie that, in the same vein as the Potter movies and books, has aged and matured with its original fan base.
I won’t give a number or a star-based review. I will, however, leave you with my absolute recommendation. For fans and non-fans alike, there is something to love about this film.
There is magic to behold.