BY SKYLER JONES-BOXWELL
As someone who had last read the Harry Potter series when teachers still required reading lists, and who had never so much as glanced at one of the movies, going in to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them was sort of a gamble. Would it require knowledge of the obscure workings of the wizarding world to understand the plot? Was the J.K. Rowling book of the same name required reading? These worries are partially exaggerated, but nevertheless as someone whose knowledge of Harry Potter has atrophied over time, I found myself wondering if the movie would appeal only to diehard fans who knew how many freckles Daniel Radcliffe had on his left toe. But familiarity with the franchise proved not to be an issue, as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling herself – has proven to be a brilliant movie with its engaging plot line and lovable characters, and its subtle references to other Harry Potter works a nice bonus.
Set in 1920s New York, Fantastic Beasts functions as a sort of prequel to Harry Potter series, and a refreshing change of scenery from a previously eurocentric series. In fact, the story occurs concurrently with Gellert Grindelwald’s war in Europe, a previously established event in the Harry Potter universe, of which Harry Potter fans should be familiar with and appreciate the reference. Based off of the 2001 book published by J.K. Rowling detailing the creatures of the Harry Potter universe, the movie follows British wizard Newt Scamander as he arrives in New York City, carrying a case of magical creatures of which so happen to be illegal under American wizarding law. And, since dramatic irony calls for it, the case is evidently opened to release these magical creatures during a time where houses in New York City are being destroyed through suspected wizarding means. With an entertaining premise of trying to find small (and in one case, invisible) creatures in a massive city, the movie has mystery elements interspersed with comedy of which only serve to make the darker moments more memorable. But despite its installment as a part of a children’s franchise, the movie does not sugarcoat things at all. Themes like child abuse and death mark a shift in the movie’s tone towards the true conflict of the film; not in rounding up the magical creatures, but in uncovering the cause behind unexplainable happenstances at the time of Newt’s arrival.
The characters however are where this movie shines. Newt Scamander’s earnest love for magical creatures gives needed love to the more human side of seemingly destructive forces. Jacob Kowalski, the non-magical, aspiring banker Newt meets up with in the first act, meets these magical forces he doesn’t understand with enthusiasm and appreciation, giving not only amusing commentary but also a perspective for the audience to relate to in feeling the same awe and wonder as he does. Porpentina Goldstein, known as just “Tina,” plays the part of a demoted member of law enforcement who encounters Newt after his arrival, however I personally wish more time was given to flesh out her character and motivations. What I can praise though is the lack of a hamfisted romantic relationship between Tina and Newt, instead allowing for the natural growth of companionship that does not have to end with a kiss at the height of the movie. The honor of romantic tension instead goes to Tina’s sister Queenie Goldstein, whose genuine interest in Kowalski, when she is forbidden to interact with non magical humans under law, makes for a much more interesting storyline. Overall, the characters and their individuality emphasize the greatest strengths of J.K Rowling’s writing, and give heart and spirit to a story about the wonders of the wizarding world.
I would gladly recommend this movie to Harry Potter fans and to those who are unfamiliar with the franchise alike, because rather than rely on knowledge of only a niche portion of the Harry Potter fan base, the film appeals to all. It fails to fall into any common cliches and subverts expectations, while still providing a sense of amazement through its characters and a hope for a positive outcome for everyone involved. In regards to a movie that was based off of a fictional zoology textbook, I’d say this move did fairly well.