A wizard arrives in New York with a suitcase full of illegal magical creatures and secrets.
David Yates, 2016
After arriving in New York, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) almost immediately finds himself attracting more attention thatn he’d like. The escape of a Niffler from his case of magical creatures causes chaos at a bank, leading to Newt accidentally switching cases with kind-hearted non-magical (No-Maj) war vet Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). American Auror Tina Golstein (Katherine Waterston) immediately smells trouble and tries to get things under control before the secret existence of wizards and witches is exposed – but Tina’s own past with the city’s witch-hunting Second Salem movement, led by fanatic Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), means that her concerns about Newt are dismissed by her boss, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). Tina and Newt are forced to work together when more of Newt’s creatures escape, with Kowalski and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) along for the ride. Meanwhile, a series of deaths in New York lead Graves accuse one of Newt’s creatures of killing No-Majs, while the Second Salem group – including Mary Lou’s troubled son Credence (Ezra Miller) – threaten to expose the secret of the wizarding world.
The important thing to note about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that Newt and his beasts are merely a framing device for a much more interesting and much more intense plot that ties into Harry Potter history. Fortunately, the strengths of JK Rowling’s world shine through strongly in Fantastic Beasts: the characterisation is strong, giving us a whole new generation of characters to love and hate and fear and hope for, and the worldbuilding is incredible. For existing Harry Potter fans, Fantastic Beasts is rich with lore. Shifting the location to America gives the storytellers the opportunity to really open up the magical world, giving us a much more complete picture of how the hidden magical world works. It’s consistent with the books, taking those extensive building blocks and giving us more to discover alongside these wonderful new characters. The cast is almost universally good, from established names like Redmayne, Farrell, and Miller, to lesser-known actors like Sudol, Waterston, and Fogler. The sweet, socially awkward Newt is revealed to us slowly, but by the end of the movie he’s hard not to love. His obvious love for his assorted beasties is so endearing, and there is some real fun to be had in their adventures. Waterston’s Tina takes a similar slow path to affection – brash and harsh at first, her deeply ethical Auror takes a while to warm up to, but it’s worth the wait. Fogler and Sudol are freaking adorable, Miller is heartbreaking, and Farrell is draped in menace. There’s a tightrope act going on here, balancing a kind of darkness that Harry Potter hasn’t before explored with the highly whimsical Newt and his creatures.
The movie isn’t flawless by any means. It is dense with information, which is sometimes revealed in ways that makes it hard to grasp or follow all the information you need. That’s largely because there’s so much going on in this film to keep track of. David Yates remains a remarkably average director to be given the keys to this golden franchise; I’m still not sure why someone with so little sense of pacing, timing, framing, and visual clarity is the guy they stuck with when Alfonso freakin’ Cuaron directed the best Harry Potter movie. Rowling’s continuing problems with white privilege also shine through; while the Potter series always had a throughline about class difference in England, her American-set film struggles to depict similar cultural issues. Finally, there’s a twist that is absolutely the least surprising twist in any movie ever, which is largely because they essentially tell us about it in the opening minutes. (And No-Maj will never not sound stupid. Muggle is a much better word.) For a fan like me, though, Fantastic Beasts was – there’s no other way to put it – fantastic. More than any other film in the franchise, this movie captures the magic of Harry Potter. It’s bursting at the seams with whimsy and menace, the light and the dark of the wizarding world.