Hollywood has given us movies based on a board game (Battleship), a pregnancy guide (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), dashboard ornamentation (Trolls), and now a fictional wizarding textbook (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). J.K. Rowling wrote Beasts, an A-to-Z guide to the creatures of the Potter-verse, between Harry Potter novels. It is “authored” by wizard Newt Scamander. Proceeds from its sales benefit Comic Relief, a charity which helps poor children worldwide. A cinematic adaptation of the book would be antithetical to such altruism, a deliberate cashing-in of a franchise that has already spawned eight hit movies, were it not for the fact that said adaptation is so … fantastic.
The movie opens with a smattering of newspaper headlines concerning the villainy of Gellert Grindelwald, a Dark wizard. Director David Yates pairs the montage with music by James Newton Howard, who scored The Hunger Games series and other blockbusters. Howard’s score incorporates the themes that John Williams composed for the first three Harry Potter films, helping to transition us into this new branch of a familiar world.
A Different Kind of Newt
Grindelwald is quickly forgotten as the story begins with a young Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) on board a ship docking in New York City. It’s 1926, 70 years before Potter.
Scamander, while walking through New York, observes a rally of Second Salemers, a group who believe witches and wizards exist and should be killed. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads them, her skittish adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller), beside her.
The demonstration occurs outside a bank. There couldn’t be a worse place. Scamander’s frisky Niffler loves shiny things. The dark-blue-furred creature, a cross between an anteater and a ferret with a kangaroo’s pouch, bolts from Scamander’s suitcase.
In the search that follows, Scamander reveals his powers to a No-maj, a magic-less person. (They call ’em Muggles across the pond.) This one, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), is a World-War-One veteran turned hapless, aspiring baker. He fails to get a bank loan for a bakery and, not quite believing the Niffler or the wand Scamander uses to capture it, flees, grabbing Scamander’s suitcase rather than his own.
For his carelessness with the Niffler, Scamander is arrested by Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a no-nonsense former Auror (Dark wizard hunter) demoted for ambiguous reasons. When the pair realizes the mixed-up suitcases, they look for Kowalski, but it’s too late: some beasts have escaped.
Simultaneously, something is damaging buildings and has killed at least one No-maj, threatening to expose the secret wizarding world. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), particularly Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), blames the mayhem on these escaped beasts. Scamander; Tina Goldstein; Kowalski; and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Tina’s coquettish and telepathic sister, must capture the beasts while avoiding capture themselves.
In parallel scenes, we learn the Second Salemers are more closely aligned with magic than their leader would prefer. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, effortlessly brings together these disparate plots as well as a surprise cameo. The climax is filled with the kind of wand duels that made the Harry Potter films such great escapism, literary descriptions punched up a notch in verisimilitude thanks to some CGI.
Speaking of CGI, the beasts are wonderfully detailed, particularly their facial expressions. A Thunderbird, which is a giant, six-winged bird, displays affection, anger, and fear, often all at once.
Do You Know Harry?
We meet the Thunderbird and a lot of other beasts during a tour of Scamander’s suitcase. Turns out it’s a big suitcase, capable of encapsulating an entire walk-in mini-world. When Scamander’s not around his animals, he’s awkward and mumbles. But here he radiates self-confidence, like a kid in high school whose home is the laboratory. Scamander explains to Kowalski why he collects these creatures. Oddly, though, Kowalski never asks just how Scamander became a wizard. It’s assumed much in the way Rowling assumes every theatergoer will have an elementary understanding of her mythology, an assumption which could prove confusing to the uninitiated.
Anyway, Scamander believes these beasts should be appreciated and studied, not trafficked or killed. His beliefs will resonate with animal rights advocates. The film reflects other contemporary cultural issues. 1926 wizarding America, much like today’s real America, is a confounding mixture of inclusion and intolerance. The president of MACUSA is a black woman, the resolute Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), yet unlike in England, witches and wizards are forbidden to befriend let alone marry No-majs, a law which troubles the star-crossed Kowalski and Queenie Goldstein.
Additionally, the story’s true antagonist is an Obscurial, an amorphous, destructive, dark cloud unwillingly created by a child witch or wizard who has been forced to repress her or his magic. The Obscurial could symbolize the pent-up frustrations of any child who has had to keep her or his disability, ethnicity, or sexuality a secret due to societal pressures.
However, like the best children’s fiction, Rowling’s Harry Potter books and films reassure their audiences that it’s good to be different. In fact, it can be fun. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is fun too, both when it’s thoughtful and when it’s madcap. Rowling recently confirmed there will be four more films. My 27-year-old self rolls his eyes while my 12-year-old self is already scouting Fandango.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves going to the movies.