‘Fantastic Beasts’ brings magic back to the big screen

Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

 

Christina Ulsh
@stina_ulsh

Harry Potter fans rejoice! Now you can enjoy the magical world of Harry Potter without sacrificing your favorite book scenes and details by watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is a rare moment in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World history, where the movie is better than the book.

Based on the idea of a textbook present in the curriculum at Hogwarts — Rowling did end up publishing the text for charity in 2001, but the screenplay is very loosely taken from it — Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a seemingly aloof yet surprisingly adept wizard who studies and cares for magical creatures, arrives in 1920s New York with a suitcase filled with said creatures. At this time in Wizarding America, magical beasts are deemed dangerous, and their breeding is banned. There are tighter regulations on fantastic creatures in the U.S. than in the U.K. as they may expose the wizarding community to No-Majs, the Western word for Muggle or non-magical persons.

In the process of losing, chasing and catching a mischievous niffler, Scamander also catches the attention of ex-Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and wrangles loan-seeking No-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) into the mayhem. Goldstein arrests Scamander after he exposes his magical prowess to the No-Maj without wiping his memory. Scamander’s suitcase is eventually opened, releasing a handful of magical and misunderstood beasts on the area. For the beasts’ safety, Scamander sets out to recollect his creatures. After the Magical Congress of the United States, or the MACUSA, catch whiff of what his baggage contains, Scamander, Goldstein and Kowalski face serious consequences.

There has been a growing sentiment that Rowling should hang up her cloak and let the Wizarding World obsession go. Some Americans were horrified to learn they were considered No-Majs instead of Muggles. She has also pissed American Indians off  by using their history and culture as a prop for a short story on early wizardry published on Pottermore, the official Harry Potter fan site. Fans were sorely disappointed after the playscript of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was released earlier this year. I personally hope the Fantastic Beasts trilogy turned five-part series doesn’t fizzle out as prolonged series are want to do, but we all know Potterheads will turn out for each and every one regardless.

The aforementioned dilemmas aside, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as a standalone film was bloody magical.

Investigator Percival Graves (Collin Farrell) is a powerful yet dubious wizard. His hard demeanor and choice words mask whether his motives are for good or evil.

Viewers don’t necessarily have the book to compare the movie to, allowing Fantastic Beasts to dazzle without fan-based hangups. Yet fans will find themselves overwhelmed with nostalgia of the magical world Rowling originally weaved for them. The whimsy of wizardry is there, but so are the dark crevices of mankind. The movie could have gotten lost by focusing on the outsider adventures of Scamander, Goldstein and Kowalski. Instead they grapple with various conflicts, some of which can be applied to the modern offscreen world.

Leave it to Rowling to speak up for marriage equality, victims of bullying and animal rights in a seemingly cute Harry Potter spinoff. Scamander/Rowling pokes fun at the slow progression of MACUSA/American governing in regards to its pureblood relationship laws. When his beasts are loose, his initial response is to protect them from “millions of the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” With this statement, Scamander indirectly addresses viewers and challenges them to exist in a more peaceful way. He not only delineates his mission as a liaison between human and beast, but performs in a way that reflects it.

The characters are pretty diverse but are more notably well-crafted in regards to the writing as well as the acting. Scamander has the tenacity of late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, the compassion of Rubeus Hagrid and the skill of Gilderoy Lockhart — at least the assumed skill of Lockhart before he was exposed as a fraud. We care about his story as much as we did Potter’s because he too is a brilliant wizard who is tolerant, genuine and humble. He too seeks out adventure and justice. Redmayne’s portrayal of Scamander is not Radcliffe doing Potter or Rupert Grint doing Ron Weasley. Scamander is a distinct character in the Harry Potter universe, with more quirks than our first magical trio combined. Redmayne’s experience as an actor definitely gives him a one-up on the first years of Hogwarts in 2001.

Goldstein is persistent, observant and well-versed in magical law. Our lead lady is not presented as a wife, girlfriend or mother, allowing her to be a professional woman who is driven by her own values and desires. These three roles are not lesser identities, but overused ones that are rarely handled in a way to tell a more interesting story. Little girls are being given more to aspire to than the same tired, “You want a baby. You want a boyfriend. Here are other beings for you to care about instead of yourself.” There is a lingering Maybe Ever After vibe between Goldstein and Scamander, but I will remain content until they inevitably reconnect and have a dopey love plot. 

Dear Rowling — it would be great to see a guy and a girl just be great friends and put an end to the myth that has been longheld as truth that men and women can’t be just friends, wink wink nudge nudge.

Even Non-Maj Kowalski is a lovable character, something Weasley could not achieve in the movies on initial meeting. Kowalski is accepting of the magical world he was recently introduced to and dreams of leaving his soul-sucking job at a canning factory to bake pastries. If we can’t relate to the first two, who have a wavering yet more stable grasp on what they’re doing with their lives, then we have the guy who knows he has to do what he loves or suffer the mundane ritual of career. He even gets to peek into the Wizarding World, a phenomenon fans fantasize about but are only given in theme park form.

It’s amusing how progressive ’20s Americans are as wizards, considering the rampant racism that actually existed at the time. But Madam President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) was a refreshing nod to powerful black women.

There is a palpable chasm, albeit small, between viewers and characters though. The characters are relatable, spunky and smart but somehow too distant to feel a lasting connection with. Perhaps this is because we don’t have a handful of books delineating their origin story and struggles up to this point. We are given more than two hours with the characters, but you don’t necessarily walk away wanting to be Scamander’s or Goldstein’s friend. It is not necessary to focus on an origin story for Scamander, as this would take attention from the plot as a whole, but something hinting toward how and why the characters are the way they are would have helped. Maybe this is why it will take Rowling five movies instead of three to tell the story.

Fantastic Beasts maintains the visual aesthetics of its predecessors but also escapes redundancy by means of using a ‘20s era America. Everything from the clothes to the music were influenced by the era, making for a unique soundtrack coupled with dapper costume choices.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them satisfies the fix Potterheads were looking for after reading Cursed Child. It broadens the Wizarding World. While Rowling said she was done with Harry Potter once the plays were finished, it’s no surprise she emerges from the flames a newborn phoenix ready to take on a different era of sorcery. And I, at least for this particular flick, am for it.

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