It doesn’t take an English doctorate to label “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”—the long-awaited eighth installment in the beloved franchise—a storytelling wreck. Crammed with narrative holes, odd characterizations, and plot twists from left field, the book felt far more like fan-fiction than like the epilogue audiences had craved.
Accordingly, Potter fans might be forgiven for feeling skeptical about “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the first of a planned multi-film spinoff of the core “Harry Potter” series. But unlike “Cursed Child,” “Fantastic Beasts” is a prequel—and it’s set not in England, but in America.
And also unlike “Cursed Child,” “Fantastic Beasts” delivers the vintage Potter magic.
J.K. Rowling Delivers an Original, But Classic-Feeling Film
“Fantastic Beasts,” like the multitude of monsters it depicts, is a strange creature indeed. It draws from the thematic extremes of the franchise, capturing the Potterverse at both its most exuberant and its very grimmest. As such, “Fantastic Beasts”—directed by series veteran David Yates, and penned by author J.K. Rowling herself—packs a visceral impact unlike any previous “Harry Potter” film.
Set in the heart of 1920s Manhattan, “Fantastic Beasts” introduces magical conservationist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) during his first expedition to America. And Newt isn’t arriving alone: he’s brought with him a magical trunk stuffed with all manner of mythic beasties that range from the playful to the majestic. Naturally, some of these creatures escape and start wreaking havoc, sending Newt on a desperate quest to put them back where they belong.
Enter magical investigator Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), one of the strongest female characters J.K. Rowling has written. She’s sharp and talented, but also sensitive and compassionate, willing to risk harm to herself in order to avoid violent tragedy. (For fans of Rowling’s non-Harry Potter works, Tina comes off as a steelier version of Robin Ellacott from the Cormoran Strike crime novels.) In an era of action-film storytelling where female protagonists all have to be some variation Katniss Everdeen, Tina is a welcome deviation from the norm.
Rounding out the principal cast are non-magical interloper Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who just happens to stumble into Newt’s ill-fated zookeeping project, and magical enforcement officer Graves (Colin Farrell), an enigmatic figure with cryptic intentions of his own.
‘Fantastic Beasts’ Is A Beautiful Movie
And while not a “character” per se, Rowling’s vision of magical New York deserves special mention. The Manhattan of Fantastic Beasts is a mesmerizing, Art Deco-saturated landscape packed with tiny inventive flourishes, like a pair of origami mice sparring with each other in the corners of a dusty bureaucratic office. Hers is a vibrantly realized world that longs to be explored in greater depth (Rowling owes it to herself, and to her eager fans, to write a few novels set in wizarding America). It bears mention that “Fantastic Beasts” is paced more languidly than previous Potter installments, giving audiences a chance to soak in the all-new atmosphere.
For their part, the eponymous “fantastic beasts” more than live up to expectations. These aren’t just hackneyed variations on centaurs, cyclopses, and chimeras: Yates and Rowling draw on Native American folklore to deliver an enormous range of eye-popping creatures. (In a wise directorial move, Yates resists the temptation to use his traditionally desaturated color palette).
“I must not be dreaming,” Kowalski breathes upon first glimpsing Newt’s menagerie, “because my brain don’t think like this.” Neither do ours, which makes “Fantastic Beasts” all the more beautiful.
That beauty alone—and Newt’s slapstick comedy as he attempts to recapture his errant charges—could make for quite a satisfying tale. “Fantastic Beasts,” though, has other ideas, introducing a much more provocative undercurrent about halfway through the film.
The Movie Is Surprisingly Dark (Parents Be Warned)
A critical plot thread in “Fantastic Beasts” involves the leader of an anti-witch movement known as the “Second Salemists” (religious fundamentalists by any other name). She endlessly beats and harangues her adopted children, who may or may not have magical powers of their own… powers that might kindle to life with horrifying consequences. This is bleak, Stephen King-esque stuff, and it doesn’t always sit comfortably alongside the frivolity of the film’s first hour. I would not take small children to this movie.
That’s not to say the movie’s darkness is bad, just that the movie’s dual tones don’t always mesh seamlessly. Rowling is clearly overflowing with novel ideas—nothing in “Fantastic Beasts” feels redundant in light of previous story arcs—but a single two-hour film is simply too short to contain the range of emotions on display here. “Sorcerer’s Stone” was lighthearted and “Deathly Hallows: Part Two” was quite dark…but there were also six intervening films to serve as an emotional gradient. “Fantastic Beasts,” by contrast, goes from zero to full throttle very quickly, careening to a grim conclusion utterly unlike anything glimpsed in the lighthearted marketing materials. Perhaps the best way to describe “Fantastic Beasts” is as a hybrid of “Doctor Dolittle” and “The Omen”—a juxtaposition of zaniness alongside real horror.
Viewed purely in terms of cinematic merit, this dichotomy doesn’t always work…but viewed in terms of emotional catharsis, it plays brilliantly. For better or for worse, “Fantastic Beasts” manages to be haunting in a way that none of the original “Harry Potter” films were.
Harry Potter Fans: This Won’t Disappoint Like ‘Cursed Child’
In short, longtime devotees and series newcomers alike will find much to appreciate in “Fantastic Beasts.” Rowling has in no way lost her creative mojo—if anything, the characters and world-building in “Fantastic Beasts” are more fascinating than anything she’s crafted before. And for those Potter fans (like me) who felt burned by “Cursed Child” and wanted a fresh dose of the unique blend they grew up with, “Fantastic Beasts” will undoubtedly do the trick.