Without delving too far into how gigantic my Harry Potter book and movie fandom goes (it’s deep, folks), along with many of you, or perhaps along with many of your older children, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a film that immediately attracted my attention. Admittedly, it’s the one J.K. Rowling novel I haven’t read, although I’ve owned it for quite some time. That fact will change very soon, because what came as the credits rolled was an overwhelming urge to sit down and examine these words, revisit the original seven books for the umpteenth time, and relate all of it together to what happened on screen.
There was a chance that this would end up as a forgettable experience, one that tried to recapture what made the eight Potter films special in their own way, or possibly even one that brought back a waft of The Hobbit trilogy. It’s still yet to be determined, because Beasts will be a multi-film franchise, but after the first movie, it’s unlikely you won’t want to see what’s next. It’s absolutely a cash grab, but it doesn’t give off the impression of a cash grab. In no way is it phoned in, and it plays all the right notes.
What’s most important to know about Fantastic Beasts is it stands on its own. It isn’t reliant on thousands of callbacks for relevance. Yes, there are familiar magic wands, and James Newton Howard’s score will leave you with a few goosebumps from the memories, but this is a unique movie. Daniel Radcliffe will remain iconic for a certain segment of the population because of his portrayal of The Boy Who Lived, but Eddie Redmayne isn’t just up to this challenge, he’s the superior actor between the two.
Newt Scamander isn’t quite as originally dynamic as his predecessor, but he brings a wry, quiet charm to the Rowling universe. If there’s one criticism of Redmayne, it’s that he mumbles a lot, which fits Newt as a young man, but makes some of his lines difficult to understand. That’s a minor quibble. He’s an animal lover, out to collect each magical species, protect them from extinction, and help others understand that they aren’t harmful and shouldn’t be seen as monsters. There’s clearly a bit of an activist nature underlying all of this, but it’s not particularly ham-handed, nor does it feel like the only point. That may not be the case in the book, but on screen, there’s just too much else going on that obscures it as a singular agenda.
That’s mainly because there’s a bigger agenda, based on discrimination of magicians, but it can certainly be applied to various modern groups. It’s always been in the background of the Harry Potter stories, and it’s always gone both ways, which is why it’s much more acceptable and less irritating than it might be otherwise. In Fantastic Beasts, the discrimination is built around a second Salem, as if magicians are witches who must be stopped. In stark contrast from the “Muggles are idiots stuff,” here the main Muggle serves as the movie’s comic relief, but most importantly as its charm.
Dan Fogler is one of those actors who you recognize as soon as you see him, but whose name often doesn’t lead to an immediate reaction. Or should I say, that’s what Dan’s reality used to be. He’ll be a star coming out of Fantastic Beasts, because he’s so easy to root for, and his chemistry with the other three hero leads is perfect. Jacob Kowalski’s (Fogler) friendship with Scamander, the respect Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) ends up having for him, and his relationship with her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), are all big wins for the movie. Fogler and Sudol are, pardon the pun, magical together, and by the end of the film, you’re as interested in watching those two interact as anything else.
The characters have always driven Rowling’s work, and what made Harry Potter work as a movie was the smart casting of Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, not to mention the bigger names of Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, and Michael Gambon, among many others. Here, we’re asked to embrace a new quartet of heroes, and that can be a tall order, especially when the Potter story provided such timeless roles.
Somehow, however, Fantastic Beasts makes you care about all four main characters, and sells the darkness of the flip side of its story, again without constantly reminding you of anything else. You know what world you’re in, but the continuity between this story, which primarily takes place in 1920s America, and what we saw at Hogwarts, is seamless. In addition to Scamander, the Goldstein sisters grow on you more and more as the movie progresses, with Tina being overly reserved and rigid early, but it pays off in the end because of the change in her personality. Queenie is a delight to watch, and again, Jacob is the best “regular” character we’ve ever seen in a J.K. Rowling big screen adaptation.
Because many of you haven’t read the book, and probably did read the Potter novels, this is a unique opportunity to see something Rowling created with fresh eyes. Therefore, I’m not going to get into the plot very deeply. The Obscurial plays a major part, and it’s best described as the pain and suffering that comes from children hiding their magic, in order to stay safe in the general population. Holding their power back leads to the creation of an evil, violent force that can be explosive and uncontrollable. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) serves as the Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, an abbreviation, semi-acronym for Magical Congress of the United States. As expected with an executive from a governmental regulatory agency, he’s not a nice man. He fears the creatures, he fears the Obscurials, he fears losing his power, and he harbors secrets.
That’s all I want to tell you. There’s much more intricacy and intimacy to the story, but you’ll appreciate it more if I leave it for you to discover. What you need to know is Fantastic Beasts is fun, and even though it does start a little slow, it picks up quickly and checks off all the boxes you would hope for from this kind of movie. One thing you should know as parents, if you’re reading this to decide whether it’s best for the children. The Obscurial might scare your kids, especially when it gets unleashed. It moves fast, it’s loud, the deaths and the destruction are pretty vicious, and there are a few scenes of implied child abuse and other frightening images.
Surprisingly, Fantastic Beasts is much harsher and filled with adult themes than Harry Potter. It’s not just a sidepiece filled with fluff. There’s some comedy and some very lighthearted entertainment within it, but there are some scenes that look more proper for a Frank Miller story than a J.K. Rowling children’s book. What that means is you, the adult, will really enjoy it, provided you like fantasy. If you have young children, my suggestion is to go with them, so you can be there for them if they end up afraid at certain points. It’s also a little lengthy at 143 minutes, as has been the case with the later Harry Potter movies, particularly the Yates films, but it doesn’t feel too long. You’re ready for it to end at the precise moment it does. Yates is still very good, and knows how to make this material pop on screen.
Here’s how much I enjoyed this as a big-time blockbuster. I saw Fantastic Beasts in a private screening where the movie was so badly out of focus that words were hard to read. It’s a major pet peeve of mine to be in a movie where the focus is off, the screen isn’t centered, or the colors are wrong. This was awful in the first regard, and I still walked out with a smile. I also walked out wanting to see it again, in a proper, pristine setting. It’s going to make a ton of money, and the release is well-timed with the holiday coming up. Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Rowling’s work, I still would have enjoyed the movie.
Is it the best thing you’ll see this year? No. Is it the best thing you’ll see that will make exorbitant money this year? Very possibly, dependent upon how you slot the various strong Marvel superhero efforts.
It’s worth your time, worth your money, and worth standing in line to see. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, it’s a no-brainer, but you’ll enjoy it even if you aren’t. There’s so much magic left in Rowling’s work, so much more that can be done with these new characters, and you’re left satisfied and hungry for more. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them puts a smile on your face and a bounce in your step, even though you never lay eyes on Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Enjoy it. I know I did.
Letter grade? How about an A-.