If you’re craving a new look at a magical world filled with unexplored angles, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the film for you. If you’re going in expecting a complete recreation of the wonder you first felt fifteen years ago in the halls of Hogwarts, you’ll only be left stupefied. Fantastic Beasts isn’t Harry Potter, it doesn’t want to be Harry Potter, and confining it to that worldview would be a disservice to J.K Rowling’s creation. With its sense of adventure, cast of fun characters, and yes, plenty of fantastic beasts, this film bodes well for a series we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of.
Set in 1926 New York City, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the kind-hearted and awkward Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a former Hufflepuff who was expelled from Hogwarts for endangering the lives of students. Newt arrives in The Big Apple for one last stop after a worldwide Dumbledore-approved trip documenting various types of magical creatures for his book. The first of his many wacky missteps results in several creatures escaping from his magical briefcase, sending him on an adventure to find them.
Newt’s antics cause him to cross paths with several others that join him on his journey, including a no-maj (the American term for muggle) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a recently disgraced auror who is desperate to re-prove herself to her superiors, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and eventually Tina’s mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). All of these characters are distinct from one another, and seeing them come together over the course of the film is enjoyable. They might not be the tightly-knit family that Harry, Ron, and Hermione were, but that is not a discredit to the bonds they form or the growth they experience. Newt’s deep-rooted love for magical creatures, Jacob’s enthrallment with the world opening up around him (a lot like the viewers themselves), Tina’s grit and determination, and Queenie’s bubbly personality all work together to create a team deserving of a future in the four films planned to follow.
While the Roaring Twenties is a wonderful setting choice, its full potential is never realized. This is the first we’ve seen of wizardry in America, so it has to set itself apart, but even though this is accomplished quite well, it’s a shame the time-period does next to nothing to add to that picture. There is a delightful scene where a meeting takes place inside a goblin’s speakeasy (because Prohibition sucked even for the magical), but that’s the extent of it. They did have a ton to pack into this film, though, with its new characters and creatures deservedly pulling focus. It just would’ve been nice for such an influential and culturally significant time in American history to be used as more than a simple backdrop.
America’s equivalent of The Ministry of Magic is a group known as The Magical Congress of the United States of America. Their headquarters is hidden inside the Woolworth Building thanks to a magic veil, and the main gang’s squabbles with them deliver some interesting glimpses into how the witches and wizards in the free world are governed. Their president, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), is shown to be willing to take any step, no matter how horrific, in guaranteeing the continued secrecy of U.S. magical operations. Things like the marriages between magical folk and no maj’s are outlawed in America. While people like Newt see that as backward, they see their isolation as a protection against the almost-guaranteed war that would occur if the normal world were to become aware of their presence. Other examples of American harshness include their strict attitudes toward Newt’s creatures in response to a situation they misunderstand, and a laughably messed-up penalty for wizard criminals. This all paints America’s magical population as being rather draconian and hotheaded when compared to their European counterparts, and I doubt many will leave the theater desiring an acceptance letter to Ilvermorny over Hogwarts.
The film does make good on its promise of introducing plenty of weirdly fantastic magical creatures, and they’re the best of what Fantastic Beasts has to offer. In the film’s best scene, we see Newt’s massive collection of animal friends all living in his expansive briefcase zoo. This only cements his role as a sort of magical Ace Ventura, and it suits him. Everything from the dodo birds with the ability to teleport to literal flying snakes are all animated beautifully and invoke a sense of awe. Everything isn’t cute and colorful either, as creatures like the blowfish-lions and Murtlaps, which are pretty much the results of a rat and sea anemone fusion, showcase the weirder side of magical creatures. It all culminates into that sparkle of magic best delivered by Rowling. The more time in the future spent focused on these strangest parts of the magical world, the better. There’s a reason people remember Harry flushing himself down the toilet to go to the Ministry of Magic, and not what class he took after potions his third year.
A much darker subplot follows the auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) as he investigates a creepy, slightly cult-ish family of witch-hating no-majs. It is more common as of late for child-oriented movies to tackle serious adult issues like racism and loss, and this story presents Fantastic Beasts‘ own deeper message. “We need a second Salem,” is the battle cry of the family’s Second Salemer movement, and in a current climate overflowing with hatred and fear, this examination of the dangers found in extremism and the rejection of those different from yourself is much needed. The focus is put on the struggles of the family’s oldest and most troubled adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller). Through him, we’re shown the chaotic results of young witches and wizards suppressing their abilities, and the need for self-acceptance. Dreary as this area of the film is, there is a lot of value in what it’s trying to say.
The two plotlines collide in a finale that surprised me with its additions to the lore of Rowling’s magicverse and the implications of what’s to come. The final battle added some real stakes to what was otherwise a low-stakes story, the results of which will possibly play a vital role in the narrative of the sequels. It’s a satisfying ending, even with the questionable casting of the sequel’s villain and a cheesy twist in the film’s final moments.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proves that J.K. Rowling is far from finished with her universe of magic. This series’ first entry provides a fresh look at a world that’s captivated readers and moviegoers alike for nearly two decades. There have been more than enough films only seeking to gratify desires for nostalgia over the past few years, but this is not one of them. It’s refreshing to see a spin-off make its own unique contribution instead of solely relying on the steam created by its predecessors. Fantastic Beasts offers enough visually, mentally, and emotionally to satisfy fans of magic both old and new.
There’s also a sassy magical echidna called a Niffler that is painfully cute and spends its time trying to steal as many shiny objects as possible. If that alone doesn’t already have you on Fandango, I don’t know what to tell ya.