Harry Potter fan or not, when you hear about a spinoff to the British franchise 5 years after the last movie, set in New York and based on the author of one of Harry’s schoolbooks, only one word comes to mind: ‘cashgrab’. Especially when said spinoff is a prequel, studios tend to crowd the movie with references and easter eggs – usually in the form of ancestors of the original characters – turning them into a commercial mess and without a story to stand on its own on. However, finally relieved of a ‘chosen one’ protagonist and stepping outside school grounds, the franchise of witchcraft and wizardry takes us into an interesting period in magical history which we have only heard mentioned second-hand before. Bursting at the seams with pure imagination of the likes to only come from J K Rowling’s wonderful mind, and walking the fine line in building its world and telling a compelling story on its own, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a delightful film to be lost in.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is an ex-student of the Hogwarts School of witchcraft and wizardry, from where he was expelled for just about the same reason Hagrid will in the future – carelessness with magical beasts. The year is 1926, and Newt is on his way back to London after a year of field study in the exotic reaches of the planet, where he has been studying and collecting magical creatures – in a suitcase that seems to house a world of its own – for a book he’s working on. When his decision to make one last stop at New York ultimately leads to the escape of the creatures from his suitcase, he unwittingly becomes involved in the conflict between magical folk and No-Maj’s (ordinary humans), which threatens war between the two communities. Joined with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and sisters Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Newt finds himself entangled with the MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), in a tale that is one part relevant socio-political commentary on identities, and one part Pokemon quest. Building on the world as it existed in the Harry Potter series, the film takes the magical culture to New York, where the government and lifestyles of the wixen are fashioned along American lines, distinct from the British world, giving the whole universe a sense of cultural diversity.
In Fantastic Beasts, we are introduced to a magical society that is way more secretive and fearful than the one in Harry Potter, perhaps mirroring those classes oppressed and rejected by society, and their gradual journey to where they stand today. You will find parallels for many elements that form part of political discourse today, in this story set nearly a century in the past, asking us to reflect on our attitude of exclusion of the ‘other’. It is difficult to separate the themes of the film from the questions of hate crimes and marginalization of ‘freaks’ that plague our society: if ‘mudbloods’ in the previous films was in reference to racial purity, magical folk pitted against the No-Maj’s represent those whose identities are considered deviant to mainstream society. (The film even goes so far as to create the ‘Second Salemers’, a group of conservative extremists who, in calling for witch trials, bear no accidental semblance to the activities of white supremacist groups.) Rowling and her universe have always had a voice of humanity and embracing everyone, regardless of birth or identity, a commentary she uses as a mirror on society today, and how modernity has not solved the problems that haunted us a century ago. This emphatic message is carried through the character of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), an orphan unsure of his place in these factions and who finds himself being manipulated to serve the ends of both.
In fact, this parallel extends even to the fantastic creatures hiding in Newt’s suitcase, which are misunderstood by the magical society across the world, to the point that people find it strange that Newt’s studies were aimed at anything but extermination. For some time into the film, I felt it to be afflicted with a split-personality which made shifting between scenes courting magnificent beasts and those of grim torture and political conflicts quite jarring. But as the story entered its final act and made some revelations; they ended up working together in setting up the plotline for Newt’s story. Eddie Redmayne yet again proves himself to be among the best out there, breathing life into a character that did not have the benefit of having been explained across hundreds of pages. Newt Scamander is an innocent, wiry character with the most inquisitive expressions of any character in the franchise thus far, convincing us of his appetite for learning and mischief at the same time. Despite the fascinating portrayal by Redmayne, I feel the script and story were lagging behind in establishing and developing his character, beyond his way with non-human creatures, making for some awkward conversations which seem continued from earlier scenes unfortunately cut from the film. Nowhere was this more felt than in the relationship between Tina and Newt, something which appears almost completely out of the blue. Perhaps the most loveable character, though, is that of Kowalski, the audience’s eyes into the story, played with the most sincere sense of naivete and bewilderment by Dan Fogler, whose budding romance with Queenie is the highlight of the show.
Humanity can always use more of J K Rowling, if not for the world of wonder she has birthed and continues to fill with extraordinary creatures and characters, for the inspiring message shining through her grim reflection on the prejudices of society. Is there really that much of a difference in the distrust and prosecution, and the targeted laws they result in, between the magical folk and No-Maj’s (or Muggles, whichever you prefer, although I fear this might be a slur at this point) as compared with our mutual treatment of cultures, races and classes? By creating a fictionally marginalized culture and making us see the world’s prejudices from their perspective, Rowling is cleverly pushing us to identify ourselves in that ‘other’ – if only we pause to question ourselves. And despite its gaps in logic and character development, Fantastic Beasts is a ride that balances the wonderment of its visuals and its serious political undertones, with enough imaginative genius to make you overlook the flaws. This is one spinoff franchise that definitely has me excited for the places it’s headed.