Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
By Ben Gruchow
November 21, 2016
There are the beginnings of something great here. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - which can be considered in relation to the Harry Potter series as a spinoff, a prequel, or both - gives us a protagonist with more agency than its parent series initially awarded its central figure, and a stable of supporting characters that mostly register as eccentric and intriguing. Its vision of a twenties-era New York mixed with the series’ approach to magic is sure-footed and seemingly infinite in its expandability. And it expresses potent themes about fear and its explosive repercussions.
It is not a film to spark much passion, and it fumbles the energy to really coil its main plot into meaningful cohesion with its subplots in the movie’s back half. I find myself consciously giving it credit as a work of cinema rather than being innately and emotionally invested in it. But this is not surprising, and I stop short of labeling it as a liability or shortcoming; certainly, J.K. Rowling (author of the fictional world and of this film’s screenplay) has developed as a storyteller since 1997, and this is a bolder and more confident piece of work than the first or second Harry Potter film was. Time, and box office, will tell whether it ends up surpassing the later films in that series.
Fantastic Beasts is connected to the Potter-verse both tangentially and substantially; it takes place in the same continuity, but roughly 50 years or so before the players in the larger story begin to assert themselves. We’re introduced right away to the movie’s protagonist and greatest asset, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he arrives in New York with a strange suitcase, under mysterious circumstances. He’s quickly intercepted by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror with the US equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, and it’s here that we rapidly delve into acronyms and character occupations and naming conventions that leave utterly in the dark anyone not familiar with this universe.
Suffice to say that there is a magical bureaucracy in New York existing right alongside the regular bureaucracy, working to conceal the existence of witches and wizards from the view of regular people (Muggles in the original series, No-Maj’s here - like most comparisons between American and British slang, this universe finds the stuff from our side of the pond distinctly less elegant and pleasing to say or write).
We find out that Newt’s suitcase contains a collection of magical creatures; his goal in keeping them is not profit or experimentation, but study; his desire is for people to understand these creatures and to give them more consideration than threat or prey. Complicating this goal is the presence of what appears to be a singularly malevolent creature in New York already; termed the Obscurus, this is a shapeless, formless mass of uncontrolled energy and destruction that leaves behind shattered roads and buildings (Curiously, these buildings all appear to be empty beforehand, and the Obscurus shows itself to be rather good at selectively targeting its victims).