The first thing I did after seeing Fantastic Beasts was check listings so I could see it again; I already bought my tickets.
Out this Friday (Nov. 18), the Harry Potter prequel is a delightful throwback that’s consistently dazzling and, surprisingly, very funny. You’ll laugh, you’ll clap, and you might even cry. If you loved Harry Potter, you’ll adore Fantastic Beasts.
Following up eight Harry Potter movies, about a lightning-scarred boy with a destiny, is no easy task. But Fantastic Beasts makes effortless work of expanding the larger wizarding universe beyond Hogwarts. Familiar characters, including Dumbledore, are referenced, but they’re cursory to the story at hand.
Which is: Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, delightful) is in 1920s New York, where, after several mishaps, must track down his beasts. Joining him is a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and former investigator with the Magical Congress of the United States of America, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).
Newt’s arrival in the U.S. happens to coincide with several incidents involving an Obscurus, an amorphous creature that’s wreaking havoc on Prohibition-era New York. These attacks threaten to strain the already tenuous relationship between humans and wizards, so it is most pertinent the Magical Congress crack the case.
Matters are complicated after a chance encounter between Newt, Jacob, and Tina, who all converge in an amusingly choreographed meet-cute. The long and the short of it is, portmanteaus are mistakenly exchanged, and Newt’s fantastic beasts escape into the city, itself a beautiful and lively recreation of early New York.
And what fantastic creatures they are. There’s a Niffler, a marsupial-type creature obsessed with shiny objects; a Thunderbird, a gorgeous eagle-like bird; a Bowtruckle, a plant-like character with separation anxiety; and a Demiguise, a primate with the power of invisibility. There are more, too, and although they’re not integral to the story’s conclusion, the subtext here from Rowling is clear: Be kind to animals.
There are numerous threads throughout Fantastic Beasts that go below the surface level. When Newt first arrives in America, he stumbles upon a protest led by a zealot named Mary Lou Barbone (Samantha Morton), who urges onlooking No-Majs to shun those with magical abilities. Her strict beliefs filter down to her gaggle of children, including her deeply troubled son Credence (Ezra Miller), whose role becomes increasingly important as the movie goes on.
With a script by J.K. Rowling, Fantastic Beasts uses the weird, wonderful, and wild world of wizards and beasts as a bitingly relevant allegory about tolerance, acceptance, and love. On the heels of a tumultuous election in the U.S., the movie’s timing couldn’t be any more perfect. The messages are a little heavy-handed but no less important.
At the heart of the film is Redmayne’s Newt, a charming, well-meaning magizoologist whose dedication to his beasts makes him endlessly lovable. He’s whip-smart, astute, and a bit of a klutz. But that’s what makes him so memorable. Redmayne plays him with humor and a tender vulnerability, creating a character that fans will instantly love.
Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski, meanwhile, has his charms as a factory worker who dreams of opening up a bakery. After getting tangled up in Newt’s mission, Kowalski quickly becomes the movie’s strongest character, providing an unexpected emotional punch. And, as a fish-out-of-water whose trying to grapple with the existence of magic, he provides a lot of the film’s best humor.
But by no means is Fantastic Beasts lighthearted; in fact, it’s probably the darkest out of all the Potter movies. There’s an ever-present grime over the city of New York, which, for all its glamour and hope, looks to erupt in violence. In addition to the political tensions, the Obscurus is downright terrifying, rivaling Harry Potter’s devilish Dementors.
Even if you haven’t seen a single Potter flick, Fantastic Beasts is welcoming to fans old and new. There are overtures to Hogwarts and Dumbledore, but you don’t need to be a Potter whiz to enjoy Beasts. The new universe focuses on Mr. Scamander, whose sole purpose is to study and protect his magical creatures.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t give Newt much depth beyond his persona as a weird wizard. A more complex character pokes through every now and again, and his relationship with Tina eventually shows signs of development. But it looks like we’ll have to wait for the sequels to see him fleshed out.
With at least four more movies planned for the future, there’s plenty more story for Rowling and director David Yates to tell. Dumbledore and Hogwarts hardly get a mention in Fantastic Beasts, and Gellert Grindelwald, the franchise’s new Voldermort, winds up being nothing more than a whisper.
Rowling is exploring uncharted territory with Fantastic Beasts and does an admirable job of introducing new characters, creatures, and motivations. The film has plenty of narrative issues, and the twists are predictable. But the charm, humor, and magic of the Potter universe remains very much intact.