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Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

November 18, 2016
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

As huge a financial empire as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have spawned, there was no way that Warner Brothers was going to let their cash cow go dry when Deathly Hallows wrapped up five years ago. After some retooling, they’re trying to start the machine up again with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the first in a new series of movies.

These will follow the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), author of the titular Hogwarts textbook, and his traveling bestiary. In this installment, at least, we see him arrive in Art Deco era New York City, only for his platypoid “niffler” to escape and start stealing every shiny object it can get its paws on. Trying to re-capture the niffler leads to a classic mixup where Newt’s case ends up going home with “no-maj” — American for muggle, evidently — Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) while Newt himself gets captured by wizard cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston).

Rowling, here acting as screenwriter, has also ginned up another mysterious, behind-the-scenes adversary in Grindelwald. Like Voldemort in the original series, we hear a lot of buzz about him, but he gets little screen time. The actual conflict involves a mysterious rash of exploding or otherwise self-demolishing buildings. The Magical Congress of the United States of America — “MACUSA”, in an abbreviation that I admit to misunderstanding as someone’s name in the theater — is pretty sure there’s some magic behind it, and they need to resolve the mystery before the no-maj population gets wise and the wizarding world is exposed. To which end the President (Carmen Ejogo) has assigned the Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

On the one hand, these affairs lead to Tina getting the brush-off from her superiors, leaving her to deal with Newt and Jacob by bringing them to the apartment she shares with her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol). On the other hand, while Jacob had Newt’s case a few creatures managed to get loose, and they could be mistaken for the cause of MACUSA’s problems.

For all the intricate weaving of the two plotlines, the thematics tend to get somewhat muddled between them. After the whole Voldemort saga we’re primed to see wizard/muggle relations as a stand-in for ethnic nationalism and genocide. Fantastic Beasts seems to point that direction with a comment about America having “rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people” reading as an indictment of segregation-era Jim Crow laws. But then there’s the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a dour group of latter-day puritans (including Samantha Morton and Ezra Miller) who seem vaguely aware of wizardry, and want to mount a literal witch-hunt over it. Tina and Queenie’s family name, with its Yiddish-inflected pronunciation, seems to point towards a class schism within the wizarding world itself.

The key, however, seems to be a new concept: a wizard who represses their nature in childhood can express it unconsciously as a dark, malevolent energy that feeds like a parasite on them, and eventually kills them. Coupled with the separately-established connection between Grindelwald and Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, this suggests that the real theme here is the dangers of personal and societal repression. You can’t beat the wizard out of a child any more than you can shock the gay away with electroconvulsive therapy. And trying is only going to cause more and more damage.

Of course, this sort of thing won’t exactly leap out, at least not right away in this first installment. For the most part, audiences can expect a charming romp into a new region of the wizarding world that they’ve been missing for years. But, having been through one cycle already, Rowling and returning director David Yates are confident enough to risk some dark sequences in the otherwise light-hearted story. We may not have needed this new series, but now that it’s here it doesn’t feel like the slapdash, superfluous money-grab it could have been.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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