I love Harry Potter as much as the next person, but it’s taken me a while to go see the latest movie set in the wizarding world. This is because I don’t believe in unnecessary prequels (especially not when they get turned into their own multi-film series–I’m still mad at Peter Jackson for the Hobbit movies), and everything in me recoils at the idea of making a movie as a follow-up to a series of books. The Harry Potter story was completed satisfactorily almost 10 years ago, the film series finished up equally well in 2011, and Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them just seemed like a shameless money-grab to me.
But of course I had to see it anyway.
WARNING: Neither the following review nor the movie will make any sense unless you’ve read all the Harry Potter books and seen all previous movies, preferably multiple times.
Fantastic Beasts takes place across the pond from its predecessors, during the rise of Gellert Grindelwald in the 1920s. Newt Scamander, a sort of wizarding zoologist, arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures (the case is bigger on the inside). Almost as soon as he sets foot in America, several of the creatures get loose, which is particularly bad during a time when evil magic is on the rise and many Americans are starting to get suspicious of magical activity. While Newt begins an impromptu scavenger hunt through New York for the missing creatures, he gets mixed up with an ex-Auror and her mind-reading sister, a hapless muggle, and the ridiculously strict Magical Congress of the United States of America. Meanwhile, another magical threat is building in New York that makes even the most dangerous of Newt’s pets look tame.
I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by many things in this movie. First off, it has two very important things that the Harry Potter books lacked: a Hufflepuff who isn’t a total loser (Newt himself), and a heroic muggle (Newt’s friend Jacob Kowalski–who is actually called a “No-Maj,” which, if I’m being honest, is exactly the kind of stupid term I’d expect American wizards to come up with.) The lack of good muggles, in particular, has always been one of my biggest pet peeves about the Harry Potter universe, so Kowalski’s presence is greatly appreciated.
Fantastic Beasts may have been made for greedy purposes, but it’s clear that good ol’ JK still put quite a bit of thought into writing the script. It’s fun to get a detailed, but not overly-exposited, look at what the wizarding world is like in another country, and what sorts of things wizards get up to after they’re done with school. The beasts are indeed fantastic, especially the cute Niffler and the majestic Thunderbird. And Eddie Redmayne is as delightful as ever in his role as a socially awkward animal lover who’s a lot more competent than he seems.
Tone-wise, this movie resembles the later Harry Potter instalments a lot more than the early ones–which makes sense, since it has the same director. There are plenty of fun scenes with the beasts causing mischievous mayhem, but it earns its PG-13 rating with themes of child abuse and some fairly gruesome on-screen deaths. More annoyingly, it continues the later Harry Potter movies’ habit of having wizards cast wandless spells left and right, and fight duels that consist of two wands pointing energy at each other. Neither of these things ever happens in the books except under special circumstances, and neither has ever made much sense to me. Wands also seem to behave oddly like guns in several scenes–but then, this is America.
I have a couple of complaints about this movie. One is that it’s too long. Overall, I think JK did a pretty good job balancing action and exposition in this introduction to another side of her universe, but there are still several rather slow scenes–and an entire subplot involving a newspaper editor and his family–that could have been cut without damaging the story at all. The ending, in particular, seemed to drag on.
The other problem is that THEY’RE MAKING FOUR MORE OF THESE. That’s more than half the number of actual Harry Potter movies, and if all of them make money–which they will–I have no reason to believe Warner Brothers will stop there. One spin-off movie I could understand, but there is just not enough plot in this story, or its scant source material, to justify that kind of bloated franchise. When will we let Harry rest?
The one good thing about getting a whole prequel series is that we might eventually see the famous duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. And my excitement over that has now been diminished by the fact that Johnny Depp, of all people, is playing Grindelwald. I like Depp’s acting for certain, very specific roles (mainly bonkers ones), but I just can’t imagine taking him seriously as Wizard Hitler. And his brief cameo in this movie did not reassure me.
But in the end, there’s a certain amount of storytelling magic that the Harry Potter universe just can’t seem to shake, however hard it tries. This movie has some genuinely heartwarming moments, some surprises, and plenty of fun in between. It avoids many of the common pitfalls of an unnecessary spin-off (like copying the plot of its predecessor), and actually manages to feel like a pretty original movie, even though it takes place in a familiar universe. Much like the Harry Potter books, it has several characters I instantly fell in love with (especially Newt, because Eddie Redmayne), and as much as I hate the idea of four more sequels, I won’t mind seeing what happens to some of these chaps later on.
Did this movie need to be made? No. But now that it’s here, we might as well enjoy it for the quite decent story it is, and remember that the original Harry Potter books will always be around for us purists.