By Dom Nardi
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the first Harry Potter movie not based directly on one of J.K. Rowling’s novels (although she did write the script).* The movie takes place in New York City in 1926, over 70 years before Harry Potter first went to Hogwarts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an eccentric wizard/zoologist, accidentally releases some of his magical creatures while visiting America. He teams up with Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an agent of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA). They also encounter Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a muggle—or No-Maj to the Americans—who dreams about opening a pastry shop. Together, the three of them track down Newt’s creatures before they can wreck havoc on New York City. There’s also a subplot involving an anti-wizard movement led by the headmistress of a Dickensian orphanage, Chastity Barebone (Jenn Murray).
* J.K. Rowling did publish a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them back in 2001, but that was an in-universe zoological guide to magical creatures, not an actual story.
At times, “Fantastic Beasts” seems like a thinly veiled excuse to return to the wizarding world. The plot doesn’t quite have the depth or richness of even the Harry Potter movies, much less the books. Fortunately, it’s an extremely fun return visit, supported by great acting and some hilarious comedy. The audience in my theater couldn’t stop laughing. Much of the comedy is slapstick, which feels appropriate for a film set in the 1920s (Charlie Chaplin was still popular amongst moviegoers). Seeing Eddie Redmayne perform an elaborate mating dance with a CGI erumpent could have been cringe-worthy, but Redmayne is clearly in on the fun and lets the audience know it’s OK to laugh at him (he claims earlier versions of the dance are even more embarrassing). My favorite comedic gags involved the Niffler. This little creature looks like a cross between a platypus and an echidna, and has a bottomless pouch. Nifflers are attracted to shiny objects, so it’s constantly trying to rob banks and jewelry stores. The Niffler easily stole the show whenever it was on screen.
In some ways, “Fantastic Beasts” is more a sequel to “Deathly Hallows” than a prequel to “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The new film doesn’t waste any time introducing viewers to the world of wizards and magic. Newt uses the term muggle early in the film without any explanation. The film simply assumes viewers already accept that magic exists in this world and can follow along. The lack of exposition works for the most part. Even if viewers haven’t seen all eight previous films (and who hasn’t?), the Harry Potter franchise has penetrated popular culture so deeply that every muggle knows what a patronus is.
David Yates, the director for the last four Harry Potter films, returns to helm the “Fantastic Beasts” franchise. The cinematography certainly bears his mark. Among other things, this means that the color palette is surprisingly dark for such an upbeat film. The dark color palette made sense for the latter Harry Potter films because it evoked the looming threat of Voldemort. However, in “Fantastic Beasts” the drab colors of 1920s New York shows just how far America has gone in suppressing magic and joy. After all, this is an America in which, as a banker tells Jacob near the beginning of the film, machines are replacing humans on assembly lines. Machines can produce more pastries than Jacob, but they lack the creative touch. It’s telling that the two most colorful locales in the film are inside Newt’s suitcase, which houses a variety of magical creatures, and Jacob’s pastry shop, which offers a variety of pastries inspired by those magical creatures.
“Fantastic Beasts” is also the first Harry Potter story set in America, which gives it a unique flavor. The original Harry Potter books reveled in their Britishness. The war against Voldemort deliberately evoked British collective memories of World War II. The books also reflected the hopes and anxieties of late 20th/early 21st century Great Britain. The first three books were published during the late 1990s, an era of general peace and prosperity. Those books all ended with a happy and peaceful resolution of the main conflict. The latter three books were published after the 9/11 attacks, when the world no longer felt safe and Great Britain found itself embroiled in Middle East wars. The later books contain clear allusions to airport security, sleeper cells, and other phenomena of post-9/11 Britain.*
* Coincidentally, the Harry Potter series overlaps almost exactly with Tony Blair’s time as prime minister (1997-2007).
The New York City depicted in “Fantastic Beasts” comes across as a romanticized version of 1920s Americana. As blogger Darren Mooney notes, this America “feels like it has been stitched together by a collection of anthropologists who have access to well-worn copies of King Kong and Citizen Kane.” It’s hard not to think of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” when Jacob walks forlornly out of the factory, his dreams of owning a pastry shop crushed. There’s even an obligatory mobster scene in a burlesque bar (although the stripper is a house elf).
Despite the 1920s aesthetic, “Fantastic Beasts” still finds ways to speak to those of us in the 2010s. The big threat Newt faces isn’t yet another evil wizard or even a terrifying beast, but rather an obscurus. An obscurus is a dark cloud that forms when a wizard tries to suppress his or her magical abilities. Some wizards turned to obscura in order to hide from the anti-wizard fervor sweeping New York. Yet, obscura are inherently unstable, uncontrollable forces that can burst out and attack at any moment.
As blogger Darren Mooney notes, the obscura represents the idea that past injustices and crimes only fester if buried or hidden. This seems a particularly apt metaphor for 2016. From Brexit to Black Lives Matter to terrorism, it seems like long repressed grievances are all coming to the fore this year. Many of these grievances don’t have a single source or culprit, but rather are the culmination of years or even decades of slowly festering wounds. Like the obscura, these repressed grievances can suddenly burst into action or even violence.
Newt Scamander represents the opposite extreme. If obscura are children who can’t contain their rage, Newt is like a child who can’t contain his enthusiasm. Eddie Redmayne emphasizes this aspect of the character by imbuing him with a childlike sense of wonder. Newt sees the value in all life, from a No-Maj like Jacob to a deadly obscurus. He urges the wizarding world to protect all magical creatures, even the dangerous ones. However, Newt’s joy doesn’t mean he has led a carefree life. Later in the film, we learn that Newt was expelled from Hogwarts and lost a loved one. He simply refuses to let that sadness define him.
For the most part, “Fantastic Beasts” is a lighthearted comedy that can stand on its own in the Harry Potter universe. However, the end of the film lays the groundwork for a larger conflict that will drive the four planned sequels (the second film will be released on November 16, 2018). It appears the next film will be set in Paris and that each subsequent film will go to a different city. Although Newt and company will return, other characters will likely take center stage. It’s an interesting direction for the Harry Potter franchise, one that will potentially offer more variety and a more diverse cast of characters than Potter’s story. At the very least, it looks like we’ll be seeing much more of the wizarding world over the next few years.
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.