The Harry Potter series spawns a new spinoff with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Warner Bros. latest attempt to keep the magical cash cow milking. What could easily have been a cynical cash grab or retread a-la some of the Jurassic Park sequels, instead comes alive as a rousing—and fantastic—new adventure. J.K. Rowling, the author behind the Potterverse returns to pen the script, and David Yates, director of the final four installments of the first cycle of Potter films returns to helm. The result might not quite pack the cinematic wallop of the best of the Harry-centric stories, but it nonetheless delivers a captivating new story, and holds plenty of promise for the next four films that will tie up the arc that begins with Fantastic Beasts.
For all those fans of the wizarding world in withdrawal because of a lack of a magical fix, this should come as great news. For anyone else out there—including muggles—who just wants to have a great time at the movies, Fantastic Beasts should also hold their attention. Be warned: some mild spoilers will appear here, as we look at 15 Fantastic Reasons to See Fantastic Beasts!
Though he’s snagged an Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything and racked up another nomination for The Danish Girl, Eddie Redmayne remains something of an unknown quantity in major Hollywood blockbusters. His last attempt at a big-budget genre film, Jupiter Ascending (coincidentally—or not—also produced by Warner Bros.), cast Redmayne as a screaming, effete, intergalactic real estate monger. As if the description alone didn’t say enough, the role wasted Redmayne’s talents, and the actor gave a laughable performance.
Fantastic Beasts finds Redmayne in top form as Newt Scamander, a magical animal enthusiast who comes to the United States on a magical mission. With him comes a menagerie of creatures confined to his suitcase. Unlike Harry Potter, Newt is a quiet, shy and subdued fellow who doesn’t try to get himself into magical predicaments. Hufflepuffs should also note that Newt has become the new face of the Hogwart’s house, and a very pretty one at that.
In his adventure, Newt crosses paths with Tina Goldstien. As played by Katherine Waterston, Tina, like Newt, lacks some of the more flamboyant touches of Ron, Hermione and the like. Some of that comes from her age: as a full-grown adult, Tina lacks the youthful enthusiasm of the Hogwarts student crew. Tina does, however, have an adventurous streak, and at times channels the can-do spirit of Amelia Earhart or Susan B. Anthony. As a former auror, Tina has more than enough pluck to make up for her quiet personality.
Much more alluring is Tina’s sister Queenie, played by Alison Sudol. With a platinum-blond bob and slinky figure, Sudol recalls blond bombshells like Jean Harlow or Judy Holiday. As a natural legilimens, Queenie has a nasty habit of reading other people’s minds—a skill which pays off, and gets her in fair bit of trouble. Sudol is simply wonderful in the role, and steals her scenes with her blend of flapper-style glamour and sneaky wit.
The magical society of the United States strikes a stark contrast with its European cousins. Unlike the magical folk of Europe, American witches and wizards have a series of strict laws that prevent them from having much interaction with muggles—or as they’re known in the US, No-Majs. Unfortunately for Newt, a few magical creatures manage to escape his carrying case and a non-magical man happens to witness his misfortune.
Dan Fogler plays Jake Kokwalski, a war veteran and factory worker down on his luck. Jake dreams of opening his own bakery to follow in his grandmother’s pastry-making footsteps, but lacks the funds to do so. A chance meeting at a bank allows Jake to witness Newt’s magical creatures escaping, and the No-Maj finds himself at the center of a magical plot. Folger plays Jake as a charming everyman, and the presence of a No-Maj makes up, in a sense, for the lack of muggle activity in the first Potter films. He also gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie.
A movie about wizards that advertises fantastic beasts better have a few awesome creatures to back up the claim, and happily, Fantastic Beasts does not disappoint. Computer animation and special effects have come a very long way, fueled in part by the demands of the previous Potter films. Fantastic Beasts introduces some remarkable creatures—some of the most distinctive and colorful to grace the screen in a very long time. Newt knows them all very well, and their escape forces him into a mysterious plot involving a No-Maj Senator (more on him in a moment), and the somewhat xenophobic Magical Congress of the United States.
Of all the beasts though, one stands out: a niffler, a sort of duck-billed platypus with a bad case of kleptomania. Much as BB-8 upstaged his human counterparts in The Force Awakens, the niffler steals his scenes. Considering that he doesn’t even exist, and that he’s playing opposite some very talented actors, that says something. With luck he too will have a role in future installments, if for no other reason but the comic relief!
Newt comes to America in 1926, landing in New York City. Seldom in the movies has New York looked more, well, magical! Yates and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot photograph the city with a tender eye, dressing it in 1920s decadence and style. The time period also allows for some clever plot twists and set dressings. Tina and Queenie, for example indulge in bejeweled dresses that Isadora Duncan could have worn. One scene features a speakeasy—a requirement for all urban 20s movies—populated by magical folk. House elves and giants abound, pounding back shots and puffing on cigars. The film also detours through famous locations like Central Park, the Macy’s department store and, of course, the city subway for a bit of nostalgia and American name dropping. Given that Fantastic Beasts features an English director and writer, the movie could have missed the subtle touches of the American idiom and charms. The period setting lets Yates and Rowling play in a New York that might have been, and thus adds to the fantastic tone.
Part of what made the Harry Potter books and subsequent films so engrossing was author J.K. Rowling’s construction of the intricacies of magical society. Rowling continues the trend in Fantastic Beasts, adding in a twisted and frightening new cabal. Known as the New Salem movement, this new gang makes for an even more frightening threat than the Death Eaters. Unlike those baddies, the New Salems could easily exist in the real world—a group of religious fundamentalists bent on destroying all of the magical world. Samantha Morton plays their leader, Mary Lou Barebone, as one of the most chilling women villains since Nurse Ratched. Clad in plain clothes and with her mouth in a near-constant scowl, Mary Lou plays like a Nathaniel Hawthorne nightmare. While most of New York condescends to her as a pseudo-religious nut, the city fails to see her as the monster she is—an abusive mother obsessed with some kind of personal vendetta against the wizarding world. Morton plays Mary Lou as a woman on the edge of sanity, and as a cruel enough villain to make Lord Voldemort shudder.
Mary Lou Barebone passes herself off as a charitable woman, taking in orphaned children to her refuge. The rest of New York fails to see her as the monstrosity she’s become, and just how awful she treats her children, starting with her eldest, Credence. Wearing a sullen expression and ragged, puritanical clothes, he looks like something out of an Edward Gorey drawing, especially as embodied by Ezra Miller.
Miller has proven himself to be one of the most versatile young actors working today, and acting through whispers, slouches and ashamed looks, he makes Credence into one of the most pathetic and sad characters to ever appear in the Potterverse. Credence suffers his mother’s abuse with shame and loathing that cover an even more dangerous secret. We can’t reveal that here, but suffice it to say Miller gives one of the best performances in the movie, which he will hopefully repeat in future installments. He makes Credence into one of the most compelling characters in the franchise.
Colin Farrell’s choice of projects have made him something of an unknown quality. He’s appeared in some very good movies like Minority Report, and in some less-than-specacular fare like Daredevil or the even grimmer Fright Night remake. Here he takes on the role of Percival Graves, a slightly sadistic officer of MACUSA. As an auror, Graves must track down Newt after his creatures run amok. Graves also introduces the film’s real plot: an unknown magical force has staged a series of attacks on New York, but always on No-Majs. As American wizards try to keep the lowest profile possible—they never quite recovered after that Salem Witch Trial nastiness—Graves’ task becomes a matter of life and death. He also has a few secrets of his own, including ties to Credence Barebone, and to Tina Goldstien. Graves’ hidden motives make for some unexpected twists to the plot, and a subdued Farrell plays the role with an almost brooding dignity.
Rowling established an elaborate backstory for the wizarding world in the previous Potterverse outings, and said mythology comes into play yet again in Fantastic Beasts. Potterheads will no doubt remember elements like the Deathly Hallows, or the much-discussed Gellert Grindelwald. Those elements pop up again here, though in some very unanticipated ways. Hogwarts too gets more than one passing reference, as does a young Albus Dumbledore, and of course Newt Scamander’s famous book which shares the title of the film. Fans should not expect a good deal of callbacks to Harry’s story, however. Fantastic Beasts belongs very much to Newt and his new friends, and tells a different kind of story than the chosen one/hero’s journey tale of the first Potter cycle. Fantastic Beasts does further enrich the wizarding world with some surprising new elements, including an obscurial, a magical creature born when a wizard child suppresses his powers. The obscurial plays an important and dangerous part in Fantastic Beasts, and much as Harry’s early fights with Voldemort and a basilisk hinted at the horrors to come, so does Fantastic Beasts hint that war lays ahead.
Speaking of war, though never seen on screen, Fantastic Beasts alludes to war brewing in Europe. Fans familiar with the wizarding world mythology will recall how the dark wizard Grindelwald once waged a genocidal campaign under the emblem of the Deathly Hallows. Power hungry, resentful and cruel, Grindelwald once strove to dominate all non-magical life on Earth. Just as Nazism and racism brewed in Europe through the 1920s and 30s, so do anti-muggle sentiments fester in the world of the Potterverse.
As Newt arrives in New York, Europe is already in the grip of terror of Grindelwald, and a series of magical attacks on No-Majs in New York has the American wizard community on edge. When dark forces attack Senator Henry Shaw, the MACUSA begins to fear that war with No-Majs is imminent. Newt recognizes that the attacks somehow tie in with an obscure magical creature, and combines forces with Tina, Jake and Queenie to track down the source.
We’d be remiss not to mention here that one of the great geeky icons has a brief but pivotal role in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Ron Perlman. Yes, Hellboy himself gets in on the magical action of Fantastic Beasts in an almost unrecognizable turn.
That should come as no surprise to fans of Perlman’s work. He plays roles literally like a chameleon, disappearing into character under pounds of make-up. Here Perlman disappears underneath CGI make-up, playing his part via motion capture. Only the basso of his gravely voice gives away the actor. Even better, Perlman gives one of the most memorable performances in the film as Gnarlack, a goblin criminal who operates a speakeasy. Perlman plays the role like a combination of Lon Chaney and James Cagney—a cipher of a man (if indeed a goblin can be called a man) with a devilish glitter in his eye. Perlman is so good, and the role so brief, that his work cries out for a return in future Fantastic Beasts stories.
Women only earned the right to vote in the United States in the 1920s. This year featured the first woman running on the ticket of a major party for president, and perhaps appropriately, Fantastic Beasts features a female President of MACUSA. As played by the beautiful Carmen Ejogo, President Seraphina Picquery fills the same function as Cornelius Fudge in the earlier Potter stories. Much like the Minister of Magic, the MACUSA President concerns herself more with political dealings and upholding the law than fighting immanent threats. It’s here that the movie makes one of its mistakes. President Picquery doesn’t operate like a president in the American sense of the word. Rather, much like a queen or Prime Minister, Picquery presides over MACUSA with an imperious posture. The congressional chamber of MACUSA looks more like the House of Lords than the US Senate, and just how the magical government functions in the US remains unexplained. Ejogo brings a thoughtful coolness to the part. President Picquery, and indeed MACUSA as a whole, could both benefit from more exploration though.
Conservative groups have placed J.K. Rowling under fire ever since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone first hit bookshelves in the United States. Detractors have accused her of promoting witchcraft, Satanism and generally anti-Christian values. Rowling earned even more ire when she revealed that fan-favorite character Dumbledore was actually gay and had an affair with the much discussed dark wizard Grindelwald. Rowling continues that trend with Fantastic Beasts, albeit in her usual subtle way.
Elements like the New Salem movement hint at the religious right in the US, both in the 1920s as now. This isn’t a political message so much as an observation on Rowling’s part—the United States was founded by an ultra-religious sect: Puritans. Even more timely, Newt Scamander can barely contain his disgust at the cagey, paranoid laws of MACUSA, including that wizards and No-Majs cannot marry. Given the American history of miscegenation and forbidding same-sex unions, Rowling again would seem to needle the US for slow progress on social issues.
Despite her subtle ribbing, Rowling also manages to acquit herself of misunderstanding the American idiom. With Fantastic Beasts in production, and with the announcement that the film would take place in New York, Rowling began releasing short stories and histories which detailed magic in America. She attracted immediate criticism for some of her creative choices, however. Her stories of Native American wizards, for example, attracted wide derision for downplaying the conquering attitudes of colonial settlers. Likewise, Rowling took heat for playing into Native American “spirit animal” stereotypes by portraying American Indians as shape-shifting animagi. The author also fudged elements of American folklore, geography and some hot historical topics like slavery and racism.
Fantastic Beasts manages to sidestep most of these issues with the author’s usual charm and whimsy. New York makes for a fine wizard capitol (keen historians should recall that the US originally set up government in the Big Apple), subjects like Prohibition get more smiles than shudders, and the Salem Witch Trials aren’t trivialized. Magical America might not have the detail of Rowling’s magical Britain, but it does still manage to feel like home.
Fantastic Beasts has a most curious pace. After a few brief, early scenes set up the plot of magical attacks on No-Majs, and as the film goes on, the story often pauses for extended scenes of Newt and his compatriots playing with his magical, CGI animals. The special effects in those scenes are first rate, and the magical beasts do look amazing, though in terms of plotting, those scenes do very little—if anything—to advance the plot. Some of that might have to do with pressure from Warner Bros. wanting to spread the story out over five movies. The beastly scenes pad out the runtime of Fantastic Beasts, alternating the focus of the story between Newt’s animals and the series of attacks on No-Majs.
When the movie does stick to the plots of wizard terrorists, however, it recalls the most exciting moments of the Potter films. It also recalls the mysteries of the early Potter stories, though with more mature themes. Rather than a Scooby-Doo-type mystery plot, Fantastic Beasts unfolds like a brewing storm, building to a spectacular climax which includes a cameo so shocking it should leave audience members breathless! No more can we reveal here, other than to say the plot twist hints at even grander adventures to come. As it is, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them represents a new beginning for the wizarding world, which still manages to feel like home.
Excited for the new movie? Love it? Hate it? Tell us in the comments!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arrives in theaters on November 18th, 2016.