Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
With much anticipation and fanfare, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opened in the U.S. the weekend before Thanksgiving. The latest installment in the Harry Potter mythos unsurprisingly topped the box office in its first weekend, drawing especially on the excitement of pre-established Harry Potter fans. Named after one of the textbooks mentioned in the first Harry Potter book and film, Fantastic Beasts follows the author of said book, British wizard Newt Scamander, played by Academy Award winning actor Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), on an adventure in America in 1926, in the midst of Prohibition. The film also stars Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, all of whom become friends of Newt, as well as Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell. David Yates continued as director from his experience directing the previous four Harry Potter universe films.
It has been five years since the first film series ended in 2011 with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, but the fans of author J.K. Rowling have not ebbed in the interim. Fans continue to be satiated by new content added to Pottermore, Rowling’s official digital publishing site, and fanfiction, unofficial stories written by fans which change or expand pre-existing ones from Rowling’s books. Through these mediums, the fandom has been persistent even though new material has been sparse. Given the mostly positive reactions to Fantastic Beasts, the franchise should see continued success as this story continues in its planned four sequels, the next of which is set to come out in 2018. With plenty of threads left to speculate on, fans of the Harry Potter universe will have much to debate and discuss over the next two years.
Despite its often cheery façade caused by the sometimes silly magical creatures and Newt’s generally positive disposition, the colors and lighting of the New York City setting lend the film a darker tone to go along with these more serious themes. In tone, Fantastic Beasts feels more consistent with the final three films of the original Harry Potter films, also directed by Yates. In the early moments of the film, audiences discover that the case Newt carries is filled with magical creatures, which immediately cause mayhem. Also introduced in the first minutes is the cause of the major conflict of the film, centered on the religious-feeling New Salemers, who are radically opposed to magic in any form. Additional conflict arises when Newt encounters members of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). With both of these groups, Fantastic Beasts explores themes of acceptance and identity, using a somewhat heavy-handed allegory for pre-Civil Rights segregation with the latter. However, this allegory falls a bit flat given that all of the main characters are played by white actors. The storyline following Ezra Miller’s character, Credence, was much more meaningful in its handling of the effects of depression and repressed identity.
While the new storyline and characters open the series up for new fans and do not necessitate intimate knowledge of the Harry Potter film series, the film will be most enjoyable to pre-existing fans. Fantastic Beasts is completely understandable as a standalone film, but it includes many gestures towards the older series. For example, as the title fades onto the screen, the soundtrack by composer James Newton Howard (The Hunger Games) begins with a mix of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the original Harry Potter series. The tune is immediately recognizable to fans of the original films, and the crowd at the premiere screening that I saw could not contain cheers of excitement. Instances such as this make the film a special treat for those who miss the magic of Harry Potter. There is plenty to love in the films, from endearing protagonists to beautifully-rendered creatures. The creatures were all imbued with excellent personality, and I especially enjoyed the antics of the Niffler, the emotiveness of the Bowtruckle and the mysteriousness of the Demiguise. Overall the Fantastic Beasts is charming, adorable and, with a bit of thought-provoking socio-political commentary, fantastic enough for even casual movie-goers to enjoy.