I’ve been a fan of the wizarding world since the release of Goblet of Fire (which is about how long it took the phenomenon to reach me, as a barely-adult with no kids living in Arkansas). But I’ve been hooked only slightly shorter on J.K. Rowling’s work than I have on Pratchett.
I think it’s partially because the work is so immersive. It feels like if you were to leave Hogwarts, there would be a fully-realized world out there.
Fantastic Beasts let me delve into a world that I always suspected existed.
Spoilers below the space.
The movie opens with Newt Scamander, a traveling magizoologist (the magical version of a zoologist) as he arrives in New York City. Whatever the reason for his trip, he’s quickly distracted when his niffler (klepto-platypus) gets out of his magical suitcase (which has an entire menagerie hidden inside it). While Newt is trying to retrieve the animal, he is seen by a muggle (sure, the American wizards call them No-Majs, but I’m sticking with muggle), named Jacob Kowalski. Before Newt can obliviate Jacob’s memories, Jacob takes off. In the confusion, Jacob grabs Newt’s suitcase by mistake. When Jacob gets home and opens the case, some of Newt’s Beasts get out.
As Newt tries to retrieve the missing beasts, his efforts are hampered by American wizarding politics. Newt is automatically breaking the law by bringing Beasts into New York, and not registering his wand. To make things worse, something that local aurors swear is a beast is tearing up the streets and risking exposing the wizarding world. And a local, quasi-religious organization called the New Salem Philanthropic Society is looking to expose wizards and wipe them out.
Looming like an uneasy shadow over all of this is Grindelwald’s rise to power in Europe. (Remember him from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows?) The big mystery posed at the first of this is where is Grindelwald now?
My thoughts on Fantastic Beasts. There are many.
Firstly, if you go into the movie expecting more Harry Potter, or Harry Potter the early years. You’re going to be disappointed. This is a different beast. (see what I did there?) and it deserves to be judged on it’s own merits.
That being said, one thing I loved about the original books and movies was that they captured a sense of wonder. This movie didn’t forget that. Early in the movie, Newt goes down into his suitcase/menagerie. There we get to see that he’s built a work shed for himself, and a magical habitat for each of his creatures. It’s really wonderous to behold. Remember in Goblet of Fire when Harry walks into a pup-tent only to find that the inside is bigger (TARDIS-style). His reaction is “I love magic.” That’s how I felt watching the suitcase menagerie scenes.
The creatures themselves are amazing. There is a bowtruckle (which looks like a stick bug), a thunderbird which reminds me a lot of Buckbeak from Prisoner of Azkaban, an anmial called a screaming evil (which looks like a cross between a parrot, a manta ray and a yo-yo), a myrtlap (which looks like a half-naked hedgehog pig), an erumphant (which looks like a rhino with a firefly in it’s horn), a demiguise (think monkey with chameleon powers), an occamy (snake bird), and the niffler I mentioned earlier.
These are animals that were mentioned in the Potter books, but here they are brought to life and given an amazing amount of personality, given that they’re CGI. Each beast has enough personality that I would consider them separate characters, rather than props.
And considering how much plot this movie has, the Beasts are in it just enough that they don’t overwhelm or take over. They’re a sub-plot, but not the most important one.
Running parallel to Newt’s story is a detective story. Newt is being chased by (and eventually aided by) a disgraced auror, Tina Goldstein. The detective story has a lot of familiar tropes in it. Tina was an auror until she used her magic on the head of the Second Salem group and the whole group had to be obliviated. Now she’s been busted down to the wand registry office and is eager to get her old job back. To this end, she’s chasing Newt over his escaped animals, while at the same time trying to keep tabs on the New Salem group.
There is also a plot twist. Tina’s old boss, Graves, seems to be a follower of Grindelwald and is looking for a magic child among the New Salem kids. If a child suppresses his or her magic, the magic turns against them and becomes a dangerous creature (called an obscurus). That is the “beast” that is tearing up New York. Graves overlooks an older, abused child, who in a twist turns out to be the magical child. The kid goes on a rampage, and the New York wizards (maybe) kill him to keep from being revealed.
At which point Graves is revealed to be Grindelwald (and he would have gotten away with it, if not for those darn meddling kids).
There are some interesting parallels between this story and book one of the Potter series. For one, Graves is Grindelwald in disguise, much the same way that Voldemort possessed professor Quirrel (presumably the real Graves is dead. Too bad. I liked Colin Farrell’s performance here.)
For another, the reveal happened right at the end. Though thankfully without a villain monologue.
Also, Grindelwald is Johnny Depp. Some people aren’t too happy about that, given the recent charges of domestic violence against him. But Depp generally does well at immersing himself in weird rolls so that you get wildly different performances each time riather than the same character in every movie (looking at you, Keanu). And he’s in it just enough that he dosen’t overwhelm the story.
Plot wise-it seems that Grindelwald took a break from world domination to find and harness the powerful magic from the obscurus.
There’s already a fan theory that Dumbledore’s little sister might have been one of these, and that’s how Grindelwald knows to go look for one, and why he’d take a break from his world-domination agenda to look for one.
I noticed from the bit of obscurus that Newt had in his suitcase, that it had some dementor-like qualities. I wonder if that will be explored in the future.
You wouldn’t see this in a Harry Potter film.
I liked supporting characters Jacob and Queenie. These two are very much the heart of the movie. Jacob, being a muggle, is a sort of stand-in for us as people who haven’t seen magic outside of Hogwarts. His introduction to wizarding is different from Harry Potter’s, in that he sees the adult side of wizarding. Through him, we see a speakeasy, not a school.
Queenie is a legimins. She seems particularly empathic and a little lonely. She and Jacob have an instant connection. In part, I think she attaches herself to Jacob because she can see enough of his thoughts to like what he sees. Jacob tells her that there are tons of guys like him. Given that Queenie reads every thought of any guy who looks her way, it’s a very telling statement when she says that there really isn’t another guy like him.
I love how when we see house elves and goblins, they’re using wands and the elves are wearing clothes, and no one comments on this. Also, the backstory that is only hinted at. The American wizards use nonverbal spells (to avoid drawing attention to what they’re doing? Because tensions post-Salem were that bad?)
And can I mention set design? Lady Liberty. The Woolworth building. The train station under City Hall. The partially finished Empire State Building. This felt like old New York.
The one thing that stung was seeing the American wizards portrayed as ‘Murcia wizards. US Wizards (or MACUSA, as the movie calls them) hit all the eagle-land stereotypes. (Trigger happy, bible-thumping, handing out the death penalty like Oprah hands out cars).
Although, given the time period, It’s sadly probably pretty accurate for non-wizarding American society. We tend to forget that interracial marriage laws were still on the books in the US until 1967, so I probably shouldn’t be surprised that there were laws barring muggles and wizards from marrying.
I would have liked to think that wizards were more enlightened (given the black female president and the house elves with wands and clothes). Mainly because I’m so enamored of the wizarding world. But Rowling hasn’t ever shied away from showing that her wizards had the same all-too-human failings as the muggles. Perhaps that’s why her world feels so real. Because it’s neither utopian, nor dystopian, but feels like a reflection of our own.
At any rate, there were beasts, it was fantastic. I do recommend. Also? Finally! Thanks to Newt, we’re hopefully going to get good Hufflepuff merch. Bring on all the hufflestuff!