The Harry Potter franchise has been one of the most popular film series since its inception by J.K. Rowling over 15 years ago. You may find it difficult to locate a group of kids, or adults for that matter, who don’t have at least some knowledge of the boy wizard and his adventures. There is an abundance of Harry Potter merchandise, from clothes to wands to jewelry. There’s amusement parks in several countries with precise architectural buildings from the films. There are quidditch tournaments around the country being sponsored and held at colleges. Even the language of this world has permeated our conversation. We speak of our muggle friends and wear our house robes while drinking our butter beer. The mention of horcruxes has popped up in recent days, in reference to he who must not be named.
Rowling has introduced us to books that are so detailed in their storytelling, and so full of interesting characters that draw you in, you are unable to put them down. I in fact started the series when Half Blood Prince was released and finished the first six books in a week. When the seventh book, Deathly Hallows, came out, I called out sick so I could finish it without interruption. I am a fan that cares deeply about the outcome of Harry and his friends and look forward to any hint of information about future stories. J.K. Rowling helped create a play about Harry’s son, set in the future, and that has so far been a resounding success. Of course theatrically Rowling must have determined the only way forward in the Wizarding World is backwards, when other notable characters were coming into their own. The library at Hogwarts is full of books authored by wizards who have led incredible lives. This movie is about the origin of one of those books and its author.
In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David Yates, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a magizoologist who travels to New York City in 1926 for the purposes of completing a task related to his work. His expertise is magical creatures and he carries several of them in his suitcase for scientific study and preservation. The non-magic society in the U.S. is as oblivious to witches and wizards as England is and the magical equivalent of the F.B.I. and Congress, known as the Magical Congress of the U.S.A and run by Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), goes through great lengths to ensure all magic is kept under wraps. Anyone caught breaking the law are dealt a swift and harsh punishment. After one of Newt’s creatures escapes, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a no-maj or muggle, who is trying to start his own business. When several more creatures go loose, Jacob agrees to help Newt recover them without being caught by n0-majes or Graves. With the additional help of a former auror named Porpentina (Katherine Waterston), it’s a race against time and only Newt knows how best to handle these somewhat dangerous and misunderstood animals.
One of the best parts of this movie is the expanding world of wizards. The setting of 1920’s America gives a unique perspective to how wizards behave and interact. We only caught a glimpse of different wizarding cultures in The Goblet of Fire movie with schools from France and Scandinavia. In America one of the most noticable differences is of course the accents, but in some cases certain characters defy their stereotypes. An elf that is not a servant and behaves like a mob boss for instance. There is a lot to take in with this new environment and you may need another go around before you catch all of it.
The new characters in Fantastic Beasts are developed very well and you slowly learn everyone’s motivations. Newt is a particularly strange and socially awkward individual who is more at home engaging with his creatures than human beings, but somehow he manages to strike a friendship with Jacob and Porpentina. Jacob is just trying to take in this hidden society and all its wonders, while Porpentina is attempting to regain her position at the Magical Congress by helping to capture a creature that is killing people throughout the city. A creature that Newt is accused of bringing into the States. There are some other characters that follow small subplots throughout the film, such as Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), an activist and supporter of reviving the Salem Witch Trials. There’s also the Shaw family, led by Henry Shaw Sr. (Jon Voight), who have no knowledge of magic and a sizable fortune invested in high-profile businesses. Some of these smaller stories don’t really add much to the film, but they do give you a sense of what you might expect in upcoming sequels.
The movie would not have worked if you did not believe in Newt’s cause and his suitcase is a treasure trove of imagination. He has amassed an impressive collection of extraordinary creatures with abilities that make them hard to control, but over time you learn something special about every single one of them and that is the real highlight in this story.
Fantastic Beasts is as much a movie about Jacob Kowalski as it is about Newt Scamander. We may spend more time with Newt, but we travel across the city by way of Jacob’s eyes and his experiences. His excitement and perseverance makes us care about him. It’s like when we introduce a friend to a movie we love that they’ve never seen before. We anticipate that look in their eyes when they get to a certain moment and smile when they are so enthralled by the incredible visuals and quotable dialogue. Jacob is that friend and, much like Harry in his first year, we get to see someone experience this magical world, in all its splendor, for the first time.
While this film does get many things right about the world we’ve come to know and love, it does have its problems. Since this is a new character and time period we are following, the movie is forced to cram in as much information as it can without giving the audience time to dive into it properly. Scenes that are slow at times still feel hurried along in order to get to the eventual conclusion. Also with the exception of a few tense scenes, I never felt a sense of urgency with regard to capturing the creatures. The movie made it feel inconsequential to the much bigger bad creature lurking in the shadows and I don’t believe there is a cohesion cinematically between those two parts.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a successful addition to the Harry Potter franchise and only enhances your experience in that world. Eddie Redmayne gave a terrific perfomance as Newt Scamander and made you feel for him and his creatures. I also loved Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski. His character’s naivete towards magic is adorable and you want nothing but good things to come his way. All the actors in this film carry their weight and do an excellent job convincing you of this fully realized society hiding in plain sight. It could have had better pacing in several areas and maybe focused on fewer characters. Also this isn’t a critique but some of the slower moments in the movie may not be entertaining for younger children.
This is a movie centered on adults in the wizarding world so I think the real draw for kids is going to be Newt’s suitcase, which is where I wanted to stay the whole time. Newt is probably going to develop into a cross between Dr. Doolittle and Indiana Jones. I know the studio intends to make several more sequels and my hope is that they send Newt to far off countries so we can see other environments use magic in interesting ways. A Fantastic Beasts set in Japan would be amazing. I’m already picturing a battle between wizards and ninjas. In the meantime please enjoy this current film as soon as possible. It’s well worth your time.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: [usr 4]
About Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.
Director: David Yates
Writer: J.K. Rowling
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Morton, Colin Farrell, Dan Fogler, Ron Perlman
Runtime: 2 Hours, 13 Minutes