I’m not an avid Harry Potter fan. I was about ten when Harry Potter-mania began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and my mom read the first three books to me and my sisters. I additionally read the fourth book on my own time, then tried to read the fifth but quickly lost interest. When the movies came out, I was interested up to the point where I stopped reading the books, so I only made it through “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which I felt was the best book and the worst movie.
As such, I haven’t been interested in anything Harry Potter-related for a long time. But, when I heard that a movie starring Eddie Redmayne set in 1920s America while still being in the Potter universe, I felt this was at least worth a look, since this movie was no longer bound the rules of being an adaptation and could freely explore this magical world.
In 1926, wizard Newt Scamander (Redmayne) travels from England to America with an interesting case full of magical creatures. While making his way through New York City, one of these animals escapes and runs amok in a bank, getting the attention of non-magic user Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and the Magical Congress of the U.S. Through a strange case of mishaps and accidents, Newt’s case of mystical animals ends up in Jacob’s possession, who unknowingly opens up the briefcase and lets several creatures out and begin to cause mass panic among non-magic users and trouble for the Magical Congress. Now it’s up to Newt, Jacob and a pair of magical sisters, Tina and Queenie (Katherine Waterson and Alison Sudol) to catch the beasts before they cause too much trouble.
Being someone who doesn’t know much about the wizarding world, I went in to “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” with low expectations and ended up having a blast with the film. Part of it was seeing this new area of the sorcery world in New York City, but it still being so foreign and fascinating, as it took place during the 1920s and was filled to brim with a working-class society of elves, goblins and magic, all while trying to hide themselves from the prying eyes of non-magics.
Above all else, this was an adventure-piece through the prohibition era, only now magic is prohibited instead of alcohol. Each of the beasts were unique, with some being beautiful, while others were creative and some were terrifying. Yet none of these beasts were the typical magical beings we all know, like dragons, pixies or centaurs, but instead were snakes that could grow to fit their accompanying space, meaning it could shrink to the size of a tea cup or as big as a house, or an invisible monkey that can see five seconds into the future. So our heroes must rely less on magic and more on their cunning wit.
Which brings up the best part of this film, the characters. Tina was a former agent for the Magical Congress, but performed some questionable actions that got her demoted. Now she’s looking for any opportunity to prove herself a worthy witch and uses every opportunity to throw the book in Newt’s face. Queenie has a keen ability to read people’s minds and flaunts it every opportunity she gets. Think of her as a flapper girl with psychic powers and loves what she does. Newt is a bit of an enigma, as someone who keeps to himself and sees humans as the most vicious and ruthless animals on the planet, finding it easier to socialize with his beasts. Unfortunately, this doesn’t give Eddie Redmayne much to work with, as he is mostly staring off into space for most of the film.
But the best character in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was the non-magic Jacob. We get a man who is so confident in the ordinary world and then gets introduced to all these unbelievable and extraordinary people and animals, seeing a side of the world he never would have dreamed of. Yet Jacob takes all this in stride, unflinching at the glowing rhino staring him down and unapologetic about the wizarding world. He’s like Han Solo, the only ordinary character in a cast full of people with extraordinary abilities and powers. Jacob adds depth, charm and comedy to this film where it desperately needed it and there isn’t a wasted scene with him.
I will say that, for a sometimes quirky adventure through New York City as these people track down magical creatures, the film got disturbingly dark at times. There’s a subplot involving a non-magic family who spreads to word around town that wizards walk among them and they must be stopped, but then we’re told the mother beats all her children to the point of mental scarring. I would not recommend taking children to see this one, since it gets unnecessarily dark at times.
But overall, I really enjoyed “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” as a fantasy-adventure that never took itself too seriously. The animals were creative, the characters were always charming and it was whimsical to see how magic would have worked in 1920s New York. Going into this film with little knowledge on Harry Potter helped, especially since I always remembered more about the expansive magical world of Harry Potter and not Harry himself.
Final Grade: B