Saturday afternoon my family joined some neighbors and headed off to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’ve been excited to see this film ever since it was announced, as I really enjoy Rowling’s wizarding world, but did have some reservations. It is, after all, a prequel. The Star Wars prequels were bad enough 1, but after what happened to The Hobbit I was a little nervous this would be botched.
Thankfully, I my concerns were unfounded. Fantastic Beasts is an extremely enjoyable film.
The film’s greatest strength is, perhaps, it was created for the silver screen from the ground up. It was never a book, so viewers have no way to compare the scenes they formed in their heads with what the director finally commits to to the final cut. Because of this I was able to travel along with the characters without constantly thinking, “But what about?” There’s no gaping holes, like Harry never discovering who created the Marauder’s Map, in Fantastic Beasts. Thank goodness for that!
The shift in setting is also beneficial. While both previous books and films gave Potterheads 2 glimpses into the wizarding world outside of England, this was the first story set in another land. Being from the United States myself, I was certainly interested in what the wizarding community looked like in my native country. Now I have a bit of a better understanding 3. It’s not a huge glimpse, but enough to see how the attitudes of American Witches and Wizards differ from their overseas counterparts.
The characters are well-done. I adore Newt Scamander, who is pretty much how I’d imagine myself if I were part of this world. He’s clearly passionate about his creatures, and cares deeply for his cause 4, but he clearly has no idea how to relate to people. I gather he writes well, having penned a manuscript which would later become part of Harry Potter’s curriculum, but in person he just tends to annoy people. In order to draw him out of his shell so he could emerge as the story’s reluctantly determined hero, he needed to encounter something which matched his passion with the great events around him. Eddie Redmayne plays this character with wonderful pitch. I can’t wait to see his performance grow.
Dan Fogler’s “Nomag 5” Kowalski, however, is the one who steals the show. We experience the story through his eyes, and because of this he gets some of the best lines and moments in the film. He’s a lot of fun to watch.
Katherine Waterston, unfortunately, didn’t get enough to do. She plays her character, Tina, flawlessly — but the nature of the story had her chasing the main plot rather than directly influencing it. At the end of Fantastic Beasts, however, she’s in a much better position to play a larger roll in the future. I’m really looking forward to where her character goes.
The fourth protagonist, “Queenie,” follows an interesting arc. She is far more than she appears to be at her first introduction, where she seems to be little more than an easily dismissed minor character, and becomes one of the most empathetic characters in the entire plot. Alison Sudol should be commended for taking audiences on such a ride.
There are many call-backs in the film, which Potterheads will quickly pick out. Creatures which never made the screen versions of the Harry Potter books finally get their on-screen debut, and others which are only mentioned in both book and film also unexpectedly appear. There are many other clues dropped throughout the film which remind people this is, indeed, a connected world.
There could be minor spoilers below here. I’m not giving away any major plot points, but if you want to go in blind, just stop reading.
The big thing lacking in the film is there doesn’t seem to be a primary antagonist. People who have seen the trailers expect Graves to be the “big bad,” but he is mostly a sympathetic figure. The group which is introduced in an adversarial roll is dismissed at the beginning of the third act, and we never get to explore it’s motivations. It might have been nice to see if some of my suspicions about why this group existed were true or not. There is a big reveal toward the end of the film, but in the context of the story it left me scratching my head. I’ll have to see if things are explained a bit more in future films.
The lack of a strong primary protagonist leaves Fantastic Beasts feeling more like an exploration, rather than a “race against time” treasure hunt. It’s no less enjoyable because of it, but the film doesn’t have a huge climatic catharsis at the end. It’s not a let-down by any stretch, but neither does it feel like a huge triumph.
Lack of a huge triumphant feeling aside, if you are a fan of Rowling’s world you really should not miss this film. It’s immensely satisfying, with some good characters and a fantastic setting. If you’re not a Potterhead, and just want to go on a nice little adventure, there’s much for you in the film as well. Fantastic Beasts is a must see.
- Though Revenge of the Sith was tolerable. ↩
- Yes, that’s a thing, let it go. ↩
- Sadly, the American version of the Ministry is based in New York, which ruffles my Philadelphia feathers. ↩
- He’s a conservationist, which parallels nicely with the non-magic world’s conservationist movement around the same era. ↩
- American for “Muggle. ↩