The words “From J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World” read as an endorsement on every advertisement for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. They’re a reminder of the film’s connection to the Harry Potter series and lore, an indication of the universe-expanding phenomenon we’ve observed so much of in recent blockbuster cinema. There’s the Marvel effect, in which each film in a franchise serves to set up the following one, and the Star Wars strategy of reawakening the cultural property and filling in gaps within its lore.
Fantastic Beasts is a clear product of these ideas, for better or worse. The film is a fun-spirited, nimble adventure when it’s not committing some of the sins of universe-expanding. As a Harry Potter fanatic, I’m not complaining much; any excuse to return to J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is welcomed. Fantastic Beasts is a partial adaptation written for the screen by J.K. Rowling of her book, which was based on a fictional Hogwarts text book of the same name. Predating the birth of Harry Potter, it’s technically a spinoff and the first in a five-film series that will explore some of the magical history referred to in the original Potter books.
Set in 1926, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York from Britain. In his possession is a briefcase that’s home to a collection of magical creatures, including a blowfish-lion hybrid, humanoid stick insects, a thunder-conjuring eagle, an invisible monkey and a truly fantastic, cheeky pilfering platypus/badger. He befriends a ‘No-maj’ – the American ‘muggle’ equivalent – Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is quickly exposed to the magical world when some of Newt’s creatures escape. Newt gains the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), a former Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), who together with her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) assist Newt and Jacob in their quest to recapture the creatures. The fantastic four must avert MACUSA Director of Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who seeks to destroy the beasts before more No-majs are exposed to their community. Meanwhile, the dark wizard Grindelwald is carrying out attacks throughout Europe and fear has spread into the American magical community.
There’s a lot happening here and director David Yates tries his best to juggle each storyline. Yates was responsible for the last four Harry Potter films, so he’s no stranger to this universe and does a terrific job of injecting the same whimsicality into this version. Although, it’s a tough assignment he’s been tasked with: to acquaint an audience with new and unfamiliar characters while establishing the groundwork for a five-film series. When he stepped into his role for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there was a definite sense of tone already established by the preceding four films and what Yates did best was refine it moving forward. For Fantastic Beasts, he undertakes his larger role with moderate success, but he might’ve faced an uphill battle to begin with.
Part of the problem lies with J.K. Rowling’s screenplay; the first in her career and a sufficient effort despite some issues. Anything that diverges from the main narrative concerning the fantastic four feels tangential and weak. The sub-plotline involving the ‘Second-Salemers’ – which features Ezra Miller and Samantha Morton as anti-magic protesters – is uninteresting and inconsequential. Jon Voight also appears briefly and inexplicably as the father of a U.S. Senator, a storyline which goes nowhere. It’s unclear whether these confusing sub-plots will play a bigger role as the series moves forward, but with such obscurity this early on, the film can only be judged accordingly. It makes you wonder to what degree Warner Bros. played a hand in the desire for universe-expanding over important aspects such as character development.
The casting of Fantastic Beasts is decent but the characters feel somewhat ill-defined. It’s hard to connect with Newt as the film’s primary protagonist, as his character is inherently introverted and Eddie Redmayne’s bashful performance only bolsters that. In fact, most characters are quite plain aside from Jacob the loveable No-maj – all credit to Dan Fogler’s charming and amusing performance.
If there’s one thing Rowling does best, it’s heart and subtext. There’s plenty of it here. The interplay between the fantastic four is good-natured, particularly the budding romance between Jacob and Queenie. Rowling has always played around with undertones of fascism and cultural intolerance in the Harry Potter series, which is embodied by Graves in Fantastic Beasts and his antipathy for submission to No-majs. Notably, witches and wizards are forbidden from engaging in relations with No-majs, mirroring America’s own interracial marriage issue of the same era. There’s also an environmental message at the film’s core; Newt is trying to educate the community about these beasts against their fear of the unknown.
Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts relies on its attachment to J.K. Rowling’s ‘Potterverse’ and is focused on its future expansion. This return to the Wizarding World is often delightful but comes with some disconnection. Without familiar source material to support it, Fantastic Beasts spends its time juggling digressive storylines when it should’ve given its audience a stronger springboard from which to advance. There are certainly exciting prospects for Harry Potter fans as the universe continues to expand, let’s hope the groundwork laid by Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is enough to support such ambitious endeavours.