David Yates’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a glorious, exciting, insightful spinoff of the wizarding world J.K. Rowling introduced to the public nearly twenty years ago. In much the same way as the the Lord of the Rings saga, Fantastic Beasts and the original eight Harry Potter films aren’t self contained fantasy adventures but two offshoots of an entire universe so fully realized that adaptations and sequels could theoretically be made for years to come.
Rowling has gone beyond the creation of narratives, characters, settings, and themes; she has created a whole world, and as with any world, there’s a great deal left to explore.
The film, shot from Rowling’s first ever original screenplay, is tremendous entertainment that’s a feast for the eyes, especially in the bright and immersive IMAX 3D format, and a triumph of imagination. But there’s more to it than that; it’s a pointed commentary on all historical travesties in which segregation was encouraged and differences weren’t tolerated. It takes place in 1920s New York City, at which point the magical world had very, very strict laws about coming into contact with the human world. Not that there wasn’t some validity to their feelings; humans – those in America at that time, at any rate – were known to be superstitious, judgmental, and in extreme cases, openly hateful.
No doubt Rowling is addressing the religious right, who have denounced her Harry Potter novels and their subsequent film adaptations as promotions of witchcraft – never once taking into account that Rowling has repeatedly identified as a Christian. No doubt she’s also addressing any prejudicial attitudes towards equality and inclusion, such as racism, sexism, fanaticism, and homophobia. All this is represented on the human side of the story by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a zealot who preaches the exposure and destruction of witches and wizards, and on the magical side by Seraphina Picquery, the stern, by-the-book President of American magical security (Carmen Ejogo).
The hero of the story is the well-intentioned but reckless Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who, like Hogwarts groundskeeper Rubeus Hagrid would be decades later, is fascinated by and fiercely protective of all manner of creatures from the magical world. Hoping to someday write a comprehensive animal encyclopedia – and we already know he will, given the film’s title, taken from Rowling’s 2001 book of the same name – he travels the globe, rounding up wayward creatures and housing them in his makeshift wildlife preserve, which is cleverly and impossibly hidden within the tiny confines of his suitcase.
The plot involves Newt arriving in New York and tracking down several creatures that escaped from his suitcase. Along the way, he unwittingly exposes a muggle, aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to acts of magic, which in turn draws Jacob into the magical world. Newt also teams up with a skilled but undervalued witch named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) as she tries to uncover what’s behind a rash of turbulent activity leveling buildings in the city. Perhaps it has something to do with the recent disappearance of a powerful dark wizard – no, not Lord Voldemort. Other characters include Picquery’s right-hand man Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Barebone’s two adopted children. Let’s just say that both are prime examples of what happens when the truth is forcibly suppressed.
As the title suggests, we’re treated to a number of beasts, some mischievous, some harmless, some dangerous, all fantastic. One of the funnier creatures is a black-furred platypus-like creature that’s not only easily mollified by shiny objects, but can stuff an impossibly large number of them into its tiny pouch. Of course I enjoyed looking at them, along with all the other special effects, but they’re only part of why Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is such a good movie. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that, like all of the Harry Potter novels and films, it genuinely tells a story. It’s obvious to me that J.K. Rowling is motivated by her imagination, not by the cynical need to produce a product.