J.K. Rowling and David Yates had an interesting task in bringing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to the screen. The film returns audiences to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, a cinematic world that millions of fans (including myself) have grown immensely fond of. But, with the exception of a few dropped names–Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts–Fantastic Beasts bears no direct relationship to the Harry Potter series. These events are seventy years before Harry enters Hogwarts, plenty of time for clean break (thought it begs the question of just how old is Albus Dumbledore).
The clean break is a good idea for Warner Bros and the Harry Potter team. The creators get to take advantage of audience familiarity and avoid the nuisance of extraneous worldbuilding scenes–no need to name how apparating works, for example. But the break is a challenge, too. What audiences loved about the Harry Potter series is, first and foremost, the story of Harry Potter and his friends. There’s no guarantee that fan interest will carry over to the American wizard community, or the adventures of Newt Scamander.
All of which is just to say: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very much its own film. The story concerns a British wizard, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who’s come to New York to buy a magical creature. He carries with him a suitcase that doubles as a massive menagerie of magical monsters, one of which promptly escapes and sets Newt on a course to crash into ex-auror Porpentina Goldstein, aka Tina (Katherine Waterston). Despite being recently canned from the aurors, Tina brings Newt in for breaking some law or another, and audiences get our first glimpse of magic in America. The Magical Congress of the United States of America is not quite as ominous as the Ministry of Magic, but it’s every bit as wonderful to behold. We meet the president of the MACUSA (Carmen Ejogo) and we meet her head auror, Inspector Graves (Colin Farrell).
Outside of the halls of MACUSA, in the streets of New York, there are also the New Salemites, led by the stern neo-Puritan Mary Lou (Samtantha Morton). Rowling’s America is imbued with anger, xenophobia and hatred for outsiders; a trait that stings perhaps even more this week than it might have on November 7th. Rowling, even in her name–New Salemite–calls upon an American legacy of misogyny and zealotry. Mary Lou runs the anti-witchcraft group out of what looks like an abandon church. Her severity is unmistakable; she frequently whips and beats her ‘children’, the oldest of which is played by a Damien-styled Ezra Miller, who spend their days handing out pamphlets warning of the presence of witches.
Yes, child abuse is a central plot element in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This shouldn’t come as a major surprise from Rowling, who layered in political abuses and cultural norms of severity and cruelty into each of her books in the Harry Potter series. But just like she did in Potter, Rowling brings the lighthearted wonder to Fantastic Beasts. The beasts of the film’s title are beautifully imagined and fun to encounter. There’s no comparing digital CGI-work to the creature features of the past, but director David Yates takes pleasure in the creature feature endeavor of bringing strange, funny, and scary creatures to life.
In between the tonal variation of tortured children and the preservation of magical creatures is a muggle, excuse me, a no-maj, as they say in the States. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is a veteran of the great war, who wants to take out a loan and open a bakery. His plans are foiled by an escaped creature of Newt’s, and he gets swept into the magical world that has been operating outside of his perception all along. Given the big and bold story that Rowling undertakes in Fantastic Beasts, it was a refreshing surprise that Jacob Kowalski became the emotional center of this story. In a film of big performances and abundant CGI, the comic carriage of Fogler anchors Rowling’s picture to undeniable success.
Which is what, if we’re honest, Fantastic Beasts is. Rowling, who wrote the screenplay and produced the film, is all over the film, and I admit that her presence made me nervous. Her success as a writer of fiction did not necessitate a capacity for gifted filmmaking. My worries about Rowling were set aside in the first moments of the film, when two beat cops in 1930s New York oversee a building which has been destroyed by a “dark wind, with eyes” (read: magic). The two cops survey the destruction and banter about about getting off shift. “You wanna get a drink?” One cop says. “On the wagon,” the other responds, “promised Martha I’d lay off.” This is the one of the first exchanges in the film, and its inclusion betrays a steadiness in Rowling the screenwriter. A minor detail, perhaps, but crucial. It’s a perfectly unnecessary but wholly charming moment of Rowling writing.
These moments of reality (in this case, alcoholism) are crucial in for grounding audiences early. Later we’ll be wandering a magical, endless zoo contained in the suitcase of a Brit. That magical zoo really makes a wonderful cinematic moment, but without interesting people to stuff down into the suitcase, it’s all for nothing.
Luckily Fantastic Beasts is not all for nothing. Rowling can still marry the kid-like awe of her wizarding world, even in a story that is not about kids, or honestly, for kids. Rowling is working in mash-up territory, with some horror elements that are unsettling, but effective, when mixed with the magic. And Yates, who directed the final four installments of the Harry Potter series, maintains his steady hand on the magical and no-maj alike.
Warner Brothers recently announced Fantastic Beasts will be a 5-film series, meaning the partnership of Yates and Rowling is likely to carry on for another decade or more. If nothing else, the first installment is a promising start.