Disclaimer: Given the sanctity many people have surrounding Harry Potter, myself included, anything below can be considered a mild spoiler. I have not discussed any of the film’s major plot points, but read at your own discretion.
For many of us, the Harry Potter series was the marrow of our childhood imagination. As elementary school children, we soared atop Hippogriffs with Harry, chuckled with Ron, and lovingly memorized spells with Hermione. As we grew up, we continued to revel in Rowling’s fantasy as it became an escape for the foibles of Muggle life. Our love for Harry Potter sustained one of the greatest literary series in recent memory, along with a smashing blockbuster franchise.
Understanding audiences’ never-ending desire for more Harry Potter, film studios naturally capitalized on it even more. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the result of a time of franchise filmmaking. With J.K. Rowling onboard and an awareness of the now adult Harry Potter fandom, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a delightful and mature continuation of the Wizarding World. It is not, however, fantastic.
The whimsy of Harry Potter has been once more bottled into a crowd-pleasing potion. The same child-like wonderment in the face of magic imbues Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with heart. Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them does not, however, match the fantasy of Harry Potter, which is almost an unfair, albeit inevitable, expectation to place on this film. The core friendship of Newt (Eddie Redmayne), Kowalski (Dan Folger), Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and her sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) is not as satisfying as that of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Seeing kids become best friends is more fulfilling to watch because the struggles of adolescence evoke an instinctual empathy from the audience. And these characters are not nearly as nuanced as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. All four are given little backstory, particularly Tina and Queenie. Waterson and Sudol do well with what they are given and have a refreshing sisterly bond, but their depth is lacking.
Redmayne portrays Newt Scamander as a lovable introvert devoted to his “beasts”, though this winning combo of endearing and awkward is hardly an original turn for him. Dan Folger as Kowalski, meanwhile, serves as an excellent stand-in for the audience, mirroring how we would react if whisked into the peculiar world of magic. His expressions of awe are gratifying, and his responses to the events taking place around him lead to the film’s best moments of humor. The setting of 1920s New York is rendered with an admiration for the past, much like the audience’s nostalgia for the past fantasy of Harry Potter.
The setting features the same issue. While the New York surroundings look as though they have been lifted from Roaring Twenties history books, they cannot surpass the imagination of Hogwarts. Part of the reason for Harry Potter’s success is how it made us yearn to be somewhere we had never known before, as if it was a home we had never visited. But we already know New York, and there is little fantasy in a place we can visit in real life.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them tries hard to treat the grown-up Harry Potter audience and recent political events with respect, delivering a film far more mature than any of the earlier Harry Potter installments. This is an admirable effort, but the film suffers from disjointed tonal shifts as a result. A fun “gotta catch ‘em all” romp that destroys parts of New York City feels out of place next to Mary Lou Barebone’s (a solid Samantha Morton) anti-witch extremism and child abuse.
On their own, both of these halves are terrific. The aforementioned destruction of New York City is gleeful, and Scamander’s interactions with his beasts and Kowalski are heartwarming. On the other hand, the allegories are incisive criticisms of our current society. The anti-witch extremism of the “New Salem Philanthropic Society”, or the “Second-Salemers,” represents the way we misunderstand those different from us and peg them as scapegoats. The subtle choice of noun is telling: Barebone uses “witch” over “wizard,” communicating a message about the way society views uncontrolled femininity as dangerous. The beasts themselves are developed into an allegory for the environment, as it becomes clear that Newt is one of the few who takes the time to care for them instead of trafficking them. Credence (a creepy Ezra Miller) suppresses his magical nature and desire to join the Wizarding World to avoid Barebone’s abuse, much like LGBTQ+ people who are forced to hide their true selves.
Though the allegory may become heavy-handed after a while, it’s a valiant effort on part of Yates and Rowling to reflect the tensions of these times. Harry Potter did something similar over the course of its eight films, with the earlier films staying in the comfort of a light tone and the later films introducing darker subjects. By trying to replicate this eight-film progression in one sitting, however, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them suffers from a tonal choppiness.
This may be excusable as an attempt to rush the building of a foundation for future films into one episode. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is meant to set the stage and further develop the Wizarding World for the betterment of the franchise. All the time that should have been devoted to character development is instead spent on world-building, which does contribute greatly to the Harry Potter universe. The beasts are magnificent products of this imagination, boasting unique abilities, personalities, names, and appearances. With them, the mysterious character of Grendelwald, and the opportunity of our new heroes, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has laid promising groundwork for future films. They may turn out to be as fantastic as Harry Potter. If only this one did too.