Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.
At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.
But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.
Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.
The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.
And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.
Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.
Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.
These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.
There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.
I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.
These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.
-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko