Rating out of 5:
With Hollywood’s recent trend towards reboots and remakes, I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest cinematic excursion into the Harry Potter universe. The Cursed Child script was disappointing, Deathly Hallows really didn’t need to be split into two movies, and the thought of greedy execs squeezing five new films out of a 100 pg. encyclopedia of magical creatures was slightly nauseating. But I gamely procured tickets for the midnight premiere anyway and dug up something costume-worthy, ready to cynically lament the commercialization of my childhood.
I was wrong. Very wrong.
If you’re looking for a nostalgia trip, prepare for something rather darker. If you’re expecting Harry Potter movie #9, complete with inside jokes and teenage banter, steel yourself for a more adult outing. If you’re anticipating two hours of chasing CGI beasts (and they are adorable CGI beasts) around New York, get ready to follow more than one intersecting plotline and contemplate morality. Beasts realizes that while its original audience is still optimistically awaiting their Hogwarts letters, they have also grown up in the nearly two decades since the series began. Accordingly, the movie adds something entirely original to J.K. Rowling’s output, and is refreshingly willing to acknowledge the disturbing undercurrents that lurk within people and society alike.
Beasts’s Roaring Twenties setting, far from feeling like a costuming gimmick, sheds light on problems of tolerance for and by minorities, self identity and secrecy, child neglect, and degrees of both religious and ideological fanaticism. Director David Yates integrates the visually stunning effects and charmingly animated creatures into a lush period backdrop, while doing justice to a surprisingly intense storyline and pervasive ominous tone.
While happily something of an adventure romp, it’s nice to see the film’s adults acting like adults. The cast is full of competent, magically well-versed witches and wizards who apparently paid attention in school and don’t expect a trio of 11-17 year olds to save humanity every week. As protagonist Newt Scamander, Eddie Redmayne puts forth a thoughtful, considerate portrayal. Newt may be good-humored and occasionally oblivious, but more often than not he approaches the world in a serious manner. Katherine Waterson plays his diligent American side-kick and Colin Farrell is her somewhat ambiguous boss. Dan Fogler as an innocent muggle (or in America, “No-Maj”) bystander and Alison Sudol as Waterson’s character’s slightly ditsy sister provide the comic relief, but it is often sober, if heartwarming relief.
Controversial casting decisions aside, Johnny Depp’s cameos as dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald are suitably unsettling as the character emerges as far more than a side plot or framing device….
The script could have been tighter in a few places, but all in all Rowling’s screenwriting debut offers a fresh, engaging take on a familiar (though not quite as familiar as we might have thought) and much beloved world. There are certainly reused motifs: the fundamental conflict revolves yet again around the magical world’s lack of foster care system, the magical bureaucracy—be it English or American—makes numerous morally questionable choices, judgments based on initial impressions are rarely completely justified.
Somehow many of these old Harry Potter conceits seem better suited to Beasts’s time and place. A 1920s New York tenement drives home questions of child abuse, repression, and belonging far more affectingly than an 1980-90s suburban household, even with its proverbial closet under the stairs. A world recovering from the Great War, only to find itself inexorably headed towards a bloodier result provides a more complicated stage for ethical dilemma and looming conflict than a magical boarding school in Scotland. That is not to denigrate the original series so much as show that Beasts both develops Rowling’s earlier themes and is ultimately its own film.
Instead of serving as a franchise set up, pandering to an indeterminate number of sequels, the movie closes a nicely succinct if somewhat somber self-contained story arc, while leaving motivations, overarching threads, and a few characters still at large. By the time the credits rolled, I was honestly eager to watch a new facet of the Wizarding World unfold, not merely ready to complain vaguely about future merchandizing.
Let’s go find some beasts!
-Brigid Ehrmantraut ‘18