It has been nineteen years since the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published and brought to the public. Four years later it was adapted to the screen, and that kicked off the age of six more books (ten if you include the tagalong books like Tales of Beedle the Bard and The Cursed Child) and seven more movies where magic was brought to life for viewers. Now, five years after the films caught up with the books, the Harry Potter universe has been expanded again in the form of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, based off of one of the textbooks from the original story. While Harry Potter fans young and old are excited to return to the world of wizards that they all know and love, the No-Maj’s of the world (or Muggles, for anyone who’d grown up with the series), Fantastic Beasts may just not be up to par.
In the 1920s (about 70 years before the original Harry Potter films), tensions between the wizards of the United States of America and the No-Maj’s (non-magic people, or Muggles) are at an all-time high, especially in wake of the wizard terrorist Gellert Grindelwald, who wants wizards to stop hiding from the No-Majs and take their rightful place as the master race. It is in this climate that Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of creatures he studies in his travels. When he accidentally swaps his case with No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and some of the creatures escape, Scamander must work with the ex-Auror (magical police officer) Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to recapture the creatures before they take the blame for a dark force that is plaguing the streets of New York, as well as uncover the true cause of the deaths of No-Maj’s that fall to that dark force.
What worked so well for this movie is also what also worked against it – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not exactly a book-to-film adaption, more of an idea-to-movie adaption, so it had plenty of room to do basically whatever it wanted with itself. Most of the characters are completely new to us, the creatures have only been vaguely discussed (except for the two that actually made appearances in the original tale, Nifflers and Bowtruckles), and the story is now set in America, which opens them up to a new realm of rules, regulations and habits for the characters to work in. On the other hand, because there was no source material, you could also say that this film was trying too hard to connect to the original story and still tell its own at the same time. Gellert Grindelwald’s quest against the non-magical community is one that was discussed (and slightly repeated by Voldemort) in the original Harry Potter series, so it serves as a backdrop to this film, but at some points it seems like it could be the main tale. Newt’s quest to recover his lost creatures (though cute) seems like a minor detail, and at times it’s a little amazing that one entire movie (let alone the four more that are coming) is based around that concept.
Another surprise in Fantastic Beasts is how, for a movie that revolves around the concept of magic, uses so little magic. This may be attributed to director David Yates, who was in charge of four of the eight original movies – many fans complained that after emphasizing the precise nature of magic in the Harry Potter universe, Yates basically turned wands into blasters from Star Wars: the far less elegant weapon. That same feeling is evoked here – there are several moments when the audience is left wondering “Why didn’t so-and-so just use magic? They’re a witch/wizard, right?” Spells are almost entirely saved for fighting sequences, with only one or two exceptions, and for every character but Newt himself it seems like an odd decision. To make up for it, the magical creatures are beyond fantastical. You may forget which creature is which, honestly, but you’ll love staring at them. Nifflers (the fuzzy black platypus with a penchant for stealing shiny objects) are cute enough that you will definitely want one of your own, no matter how large the headache, and Frank the Thunderbird awes as much as a dragon or hippogriff ever could. Some of the other beasts’ names may get lost in the shuffle, however, and there is one that seems to just be a walking (or I guess flying) deus ex machina whose name you will never remember (I have been informed it was the “Swooping Death”, but somehow that doesn’t make it any better to me).
With all of these out-of-this world beasts running around in front of us, you’d think that the humans trying to catch them would have to step up their game a little bit. Sadly, not many of them do. Redmayne and Fogler, really, are the only ones we actually believe are invested in the world they inhabit, while everyone else seems to be a little lost and confused about where they are and why they’re around. Folger’s Kowalski is I think the epitome of the Harry Potter generation’s nostalgia – getting so excited about this magical world reminds us all of what we used to be, years ago, when we first met The Boy Who Lived. But characters like Goldstein just confuse us – why is an ex-Auror not just summoning that bug into the teapot?! – and because of the time and place, we just find ourselves getting very disappointed in wizards for their discrimination against the non-magical people and those who are really just trying to do their jobs. Honestly the magical community in America seems kind of awful (whether or not that’s a commentary remains to be seen). Colin Farrell as Graves is pretty good, enough to hope to see more of him in future, and Ezra Miller is plenty unnerving as Credence Barebone, but his story will only really resonate with those familiar with the intricacies of The Deathly Hallows. To everyone else, it will seem rushed and more than a little confusing, especially when trying to understand where it fits in the grand scheme of the Fantastic Beasts universe that is still being concocted for us.
Seriously, why do all of the Americans witches and wizards have such British-sounding names?! Percival? Serephina? Porpentina?