With the Festival basically taking over my life for the last two months, I feel woefully under-prepared for fall movie season. I haven’t even looked at seasonal release calendars, let alone created my own preview of what I’m most looking forward to!
So when friends brought up the idea of catching Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them on opening weekend, I jumped at the chance to not only dive back into the world of J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and all things wizard-y, but to see it before I’d heard too much about it.
Which is sort of by design. The new franchise Rowling (who wrote the companion book this script, also penned by her) and Warner Bros. launch with Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston and crew does not have the benefit of a seven-book literary phenomenon to back it. At least, not directly.
The whole film assumes you know Harry Potter and his world of magic (and if you don’t, please do climb out from under that rock now). You should already know what Hogwarts is and how to recognize a house elf and so on. With that background, Rowling sends us back in time and across an ocean to New York, 1926. Newt Scamander (Redmayne, who still can’t annunciate to save his life), a magizoologist from London (and eventual author of the guidebook that gives the film its title and will be a tome Harry, Ron and Hermione study at school), arrives in Manhattan with a deceptively small suitcase and a plan to find the best home for one of the magical creatures within.
We’re immediately in the thick of things soon as he steps off the boat, one of his beasts escaping to chase after the shiny coins, jewels and gold bars he spots at the bank as Scamander passes by. Also at the bank? A fiercely anti-magic protestor, Mary Lou (Samantha Morton), shouting from the steps about the danger witches pose, her children (the ever exceptional Ezra Miller among them) passing out leaflets to the same effect.
It’s with this creature’s escape that Scamander’s adventure begins, as he meet both no-maj (that is, Muggle, in American English) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Tina (Waterston), an exiled former investigator with the Magic Council of the United States of America (MCUSA, a clever new bit of jargon in the Potter-verse). Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) joins the gang and there we have it, the Avengers of this new Potter-adjacent reality.
I won’t spend the time here getting bogged down in plot twists and turns – partly because I don’t want to spoil it for you, and partly because…well, it’s just too convoluted to do it concisely.
Suffice it to say that Rowling’s crafted another multi-layered, character-driven world that’s sure to find plenty to do in the forthcoming four films in the new franchise, perhaps to her own detriment. The joy of each new Harry Potter film was seeing the stories we knew and loved come to life on screen. Say what you will about book adaptations, the Potter films are a lush, exuberant – and yes, magical – visualization of Rowling’s creations, like Oz come to life.
That joy is ultimately missing from an otherwise wonderfully imaginative film that earns almost all its goodwill back thanks to the familiarity factor (helps that it’s helmed by the same director, David Yates, and styled by the same production designers, among others). Nevertheless, gone is the pleasure, for example, of a first scene with characters we already know and love; in Fantastic Beasts, I only know that Mary Lou and her children are the Barebone family because of IMDb, not because I caught it in the film or, as we all did with HP1-7, had already come to know them on the page.
And based on where the storyline ends (or doesn’t) in Fantastic Beasts, that bit of information and others like it is going to be important going forward. We’ve already heard about Johnny Depp’s casting (for which I join the rest of the movie-going public of late in saying Don’t you ruin this for us, too, Johnny!), and future plot lines will likely dig deeper into setting the stage for the dawn of the Potter age at the turn of the millennium. I’m just bummed we won’t get to read about it first.