Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an enticing film for lifelong fans of the Harry Potter series; as a prequel to the books, it explores little-known corners of the world of wizards and magic, expanding the lore of J.K. Rowling's multimedia universe. For newcomers to the series, the film has a hidden strength: rather than being directly based on a pre-existing series of novels, Rowling's screenplay is an original work, unbeholden to any source material other than the established mythology of the Harry Potter saga. With that in mind, can a non-fan of that series go into Fantastic Beasts and come out with a complete experience? Or is extensive knowledge of Hogwarts's most legendary student a requirement for enjoying the adventures of Newt Scamander?
This Muggle is one of many people who never had any interest in the Harry Potter series. Still, Fantastic Beasts won the attention of many outsiders with its enticing trailers and strong cast (Colin Farrell? Eddie Redmayne? Ezra Miller? Yes please!) Having seen the film, let's take a look at whether or not the movie is welcoming or impenetrable to the uninitiated.
The New World
Harry Potter is set in modern times in Hogwarts, a school for wizards located in Scotland. There's a lot of baggage in the Harry Potter movies, partially owing to their adapting thousands of pages worth of material. Even die-hard fans of the Harry Potter films concede that some plotlines can be tough to follow without knowledge of the books.
On the other hand, Fantastic Beasts purports to be a great starting point for returning fans and newcomers alike by bringing in a whole new setting and a suite of new faces with which to become acquainted. As previously mentioned, Fantastic Beasts is set in New York City in the late 1920s. Not only is this new setting separated from Hogwarts by the entire Atlantic Ocean, but also by 75 years of history.
Some scenes early in the film have new protagonist Newt Scamander afflicted with a mild case of culture shock at how different New York City is from what he's used to. Little moments like these are a gesture towards old-school fans, letting them know that their prior knowledge of Harry Potter will only carry them so far, and that Fantastic Beasts is actually quite different from its predecessors. Finally, Dan Fogler's character is a No-Maj and the second lead in the story, essentially a surrogate for viewers who may not be as familiar with the wizarding world as others. Fortunately, Kowalski doesn't come off as a Jar Jar-style goofball, but as a strongly-balanced mix of comedic opportunities and heartfelt emotionally-charged moments.
When an audience is first introduced to the defining concepts of a fictional universe, the filmmakers can get away with pausing the narrative to explain some broad concepts. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi takes the time to explain The Force and its all-encompassing universal power. However, as the years pass, and the time comes to forge a new path in the form of a prequel series, the same care may not be taken in re-introducing core traits of the setting.
Even to this day, a vocal minority of Star Wars fans will insist that the best way to watch the first six movies is in chronological order, starting from 1999's The Phantom Menace. There are many problems with this approach, and one of them is that The Phantom Menace makes no effort to explain The Force, the source of the seemingly magical abilities of the Jedi Knights, before showing Obi-Wan and Qui-Gonn cutting down battle droids with ruthless efficiency, or using the Jedi Mind Trick on Boss Nass. Even when the Jedi Mind Trick is given some some context by its failed use on the slave-owning junk dealer, Watto, it's still not quite enough to make the movie coherent for non-Star Wars fans who may not yet be versed in the ways of The Force.
The point is, the Star Wars prequels work better when the viewer has prior knowledge of the series and its core tenets. On the other end of the spectrum, some prequels/spin-offs are written with the intent that they can stand apart from their predecessors and be enjoyed by new fans who may have never experienced the original stories. Fantastic Beasts aims to be one such example. For the most part, it usually succeeds, though some elements are glossed over quickly enough that some viewers may remain lost, confused, or at least a little fuzzy on the details.
Instead of stopping the film to explain the ideas behind wizards and muggles and the importance of keeping the existence of magic a secret, or explaining the Potterverse's take on Magic Wands, Fantastic Beasts attempts to get key information across with visual cues. A great scene shows off the secrecy and dissonance between sorcerers and the "No-Majs," as Muggles are called in America. In one continuous shot, with clever use of back-and-forth pans, a building's interior is shown how it appears to normal folk, and then how it appears to magic-users, delivering tons of information in a matter of seconds, all without a single word of dialogue.
For the most part, there are no kids in Fantastic Beasts; nobody's attending school, and everyone who knows magic is already a certified expert. Newt Scamander is an adult, though he still has much to learn. Newt is far more comfortable with beasts of a fantastical nature than he is with fellow humans. To that end, while it is in character that he should sheepishly mumble through a sizeable chunk of his dialogue, it is nonetheless irritating for the viewer when they can't understand what Eddie Redmayne is actually saying, especially in the earlier parts of the film.
With regards to attracting old fans and new blood, Newt is a wonderfully crafted character. He embodies both the roots of the franchise and the new direction of this prequel film; on one hand, Newt is clearly British and was a Hufflepuff at Hogwarts. On the other hand, he, just like the entirety of the film's audience, is a stranger in the strange land of this fantasy version of 1920s Manhattan. He has no contacts in New York, and is forced to make new friends in order to succeed, just as the audience has to contend with an entire cast full of unfamiliar faces.
Eagle-eyed Harry Potter scholars may remember that Newt Scamander plays a background role in the mythology of Hogwarts. His textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, from which the film draws its title, is featured in the original stories, though Newt himself doesn't make a proper flesh-and-blood appearance in any Harry Potter media until now. Once again, fans are rewarded for their encyclopedic knowledge of Hogwarts history, but newbies are by no means left stumbling in the dark.
Immediacy Versus Jargon
While it is not overly beholden to past works in the Harry Potter mythos, Fantastic Beasts is intended to be the first of a five-film series. As such, the film is sometimes weighed down by its own ambition, to be the first part of a massive new saga in the Harry Potter universe. To its credit, the film does a remarkable job of standing on its own two feet; Newt's main quest is a straightforward scavenger hunt, working alongside new friends to recover the beasts who are running loose in New York City. Then again, the story does slow down in its second half, where more attention is paid to building up a "phantom menace," so to speak.
Much lip service is paid to the terrorist Grindelwald, including dedicating the fim's whole opening sequence to his reign of terror. However, this never really pays off, and all the talk of Grindelwald and his informed villainy essentially comes to naught in this movie. Surely he will have a larger role in the inevitable sequels, but here, he is merely a device to pad out the running time and set up future plotlines; this problem is exacerbated for fans with no knowledge of the character and his history within the Harry Potter series. Likewise, the side-plot about certain characters hunting for an "obscurial" and the inevitable conflict which arises also hurts the pacing in the movie's second half.
Generally, Fantastic Beasts is at its strongest when Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander, together with friends Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Porpentina (Katherine Waterston), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are chasing down escaped creatures and coming up with clever schemes to capture them in Newt's magical suitcase. It's pure imagination at its most whimsical. However, when the focus turns to what the future may hold for the series, some momentum is sacrificed.
A No-Maj's Verdict
With all of this in mind, can a Muggle recommend Fantastic Beasts to those who missed out on the Harry Potter phenomenon the first time around? The answer is yes, pretty much. It may take a while to get one's bearing during some scenes or when concepts are being shown, rather than explained. Further, some of the dialogue is rife with shout-outs to Harry Potter figures which I noted only through the smattering of gleeful applause from the fanboys and fangirls surrounding me at the press screening.
However, the core of the the film, the Pokemon-style journey to recapture the eponymous creatures, is an entertaining and imaginative experience, replete with compelling characters, heartfelt interactions, and creative visuals. Even when the fanciful adventure gives way to workmanlike world-building and sequel hooks, it's never long before JK Rowling and director David Yates return to the immediate excitement and resonant themes of Scamander, his friends, and their mission. Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts does what it sets out to do, and what all spin-offs strive to accomplish: it creates a new story in a universe which may be familiar to some, but is easily grasped by all.