Like so many members of my generation, I grew up reading Harry Potter. I can remember when I was a kid and excitedly talked with my friends about the next Harry Potter book or film. And while I found more interest in other things later in life, I can still look back when I was reading through the first few books with fond memories. But it wasn’t so much the characters or the story that I was in love with, but the world that J.K. Rowling had created. From every creature and spell to the logistics of wizarding politics, I was enthralled with Harry Potter’s wizarding world. So much so that when Rowling created a small book for charity titled Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them, I read it the moment I got my hands on it. The book served as a fictional field guide for magical creatures, and every page was an absolute pleasure for 10-year-old me. Fast forward to 2013 and when it was announced that they would be making a film inspired by the book I was immediately intrigued, wondering how you make a movie out a 128-page fictional guidebook. Well, it turns out that while the term “inspired by” is a huge stretch for the film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an enjoyable film that both pays an homage to previous Potter works and creates a whole new world for the Potterverse to thrive in.
One of the best aspects of the movie is that if you’ve never seen or read anything related to Harry Potter, then you can see this film with no worry about not understanding back story or references. Because as I mentioned earlier, while the film does make allusions to both the Harry Potter series and the original Fantastic Beasts book, the movie doesn’t have much to do with it at all. Fantastic Beasts takes place long before the events of the original Harry Potter films in New York City in 1926. Despite it being decades before the Wizarding Wars of the books, 1926 is not without its own problems. There’s a dark wizard on the loose and non-magical humans are on edge, none of which is helping the American wizard community. Fortunately for us, genius and socially-awkward magizoologist, Newt Scamander ends getting involved in the much larger conspiracy whether he likes it or not. Having snuck in several magical creatures illegally into the United States, he must now team up with an equally unique band of characters to not only retrieve some of his own beasts that have escaped, but also save New York from the evil that is terrorizing the city.
As endearing and charming as Newt can be at times, if it had been him going solo I think I would have pulled my hair out in frustration at his worst moments. Thankfully he’s joined by Tina Goldstein, a recently demoted ex-Auror eager to get back into her bosses’ good graces, a No-Maj (aka a muggle) Jacob Kowalski who serves as the the film’s comic relief, and Tina’s sister Queenie, a flirty witch with a penchant for mind-reading and manipulation. While there are a lot of characters in the film, both good and bad, it’s these four that make the film come alive with their strong chemistry. But that also has to do with the movie’s excellent writing bringing both the characters and this world to life.
While Harry Potter started out as simply a story for children, its fan base has grown up along with the plot. Fantastic Beasts and its story reflects that with definitely a more mature story line. Jokes about differences in American and British culture, references to prohibition and the first world war, even overt references to the death penalty show that this isn’t aimed at the age group that might be reading Harry Potter for the first time. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its trademark moments of magical silliness that we’ve become used with Harry Potter, but they’re present in equal parts with an adult story rather than being the majority. I will say though that the villains suffer from the usual lack of depth, being evil for the sake of being evil. But for the most part, the stereotypes and cliches that characters fall into don’t hinder the story from being enjoyable. Throughout the movie, whether during moments of serious plot development or Jacob running from a herd of magical creatures, everyone gives great performances that never feel unnatural to their character.
But like the books before it, what captured my attention the most was the wonderful new world of a magical New York City. Because the minutiae of a magical world were only brought more to focus in the later books, Fantastic Beast’s New York feels as alive as the real New York does, in many respects feeling far more fleshed out than Hogwarts and magical Britain. Complete with its own magical crime underworld that has the goblin equivalent of Al Capone, David Yates and J.K. Rowling have pulled out all the stops to make every little detail have a purpose. Magic has always seemed so appealing in films like these, but when you’re able to make perfect apple strudel instantly with a couple of flicks of your wand, it makes me even sadder that this is indeed all fantasy.
Given the fact that I went into the film mostly blind apart from my nostalgia for the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, this movie was an absolute blast. If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, then you have to check it out. If you’re not a fan of Harry Potter or never seen of any of the films, then I would recommend seeing this over them as its characters and world are far more intriguing, especially for adults. While I have no idea how they’re going to keep the momentum going for another four films, it’s clear that J.K. Rowling has plenty of ideas that will just continue to grow the Potterverse beyond our wildest dreams. I’m confident now that they’ll all be fantastic.