“Go to your room” doesn’t quite sound the same when your room is a briefcase with four distinct ecosystems. Being a parent is hard – but being a magical parent must be dang near impossible. Wizarding adolescents will do what they please. And if what they please involves teleporting to Africa to hunt, capture, and study house-sized magical creatures, what’s a Molly Weasley to do? It’s only been five years since the epic Harry Potter adventure ended, yet we’re still craving more. The smart difference is that this time we’re not looking forward or beyond (to a balding Draco Malfoy) – we’re looking back.
Why take a boat when you can apparate anywhere you need to go? I’m assuming boarder security has something to do with it. Or because the ocean view is so splendid. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a view-loving kind of guy, and his latest environment is cozy 1926 New York City, where wizards mingle among the no-majs (…muggles) as if the Salem witch hunt never happened. Newt’s reason for visiting really isn’t important, as the plot of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them swiftly redirects his attention to a more pressing matter. Newt’s briefcase, stuffed to capacity with magical creatures, is accidentally opened by the ignorant no-maj, Jacob (Dan Fogler). Jacob thought he was reaching for a bagel. He unleashes a menagerie of creatures upon New York, sending Newt and his new friend/parole officer, Tina (Katherine Waterston), on a magical goose chase.
While the above story would be fine on its own, this is J.K. Rowling we’re dealing with. Plot sub-level #3 informs us that the famous wizard, Grindelwald, is evil and unaccounted for; sub-level #2 mingles with how Tina went from auror to permit-writer; and sub-level #1 is a malicious cloud that’s been terrorizing the city and threatening to expose the magical world – not that New York wizards are particularly good at hiding.
Once again a movie’s heroes must fight against a mysterious, evil, dark cloud — keeping with today’s super villain theme. Fantastic Beasts has a colourfully vast collection of intimidating Godzillas, yet we’re running in terror from the mists of doom. What is actually quite clever about Fantastic Beasts is that this menacing vapour has Rowling (literally) written all over it. (Minor spoilers) The cloud is a beast that’s born of suppressed magical abilities – essentially what would have happened if little Harry had given in to the Dursleys. In other words, the localized fog storm that’s tearing New York City to shreds is the manifestation of some kid’s anxiety. Whereas the Harry Potter series looked at what damage can be done when a wizard lets loose, Fantastic Beasts focuses on the exact opposite, and the devastation is equally terrifying. With so much attention on mental health these days, this wizarding spin on a very human issue is especially significant.
And then we have the kleptomaniac platypus. The deep, dark issues are the core of Fantastic Beasts, but they’re buried under a frosting of imaginary friends and hobbyists. While Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) are relatively uncomplicated characters, Newt wanders on screen like a jigsaw puzzle that came with half the pieces already attached. Eddie Redmayne plays him with a special approach of awkward delicacy, inviting you to imagine what past events forged the Newt we know today. It’s not easy to put so much depth into a character we only follow for a day or two (with not a single flashback or montage in sight), but Redmayne pulls it off – magically. It helps that we see Newt (and his briefcase to Narnia) through the eyes of ordinary Jacob who, until yesterday, thought that strudel was the most magical thing on earth.
What pulls these characters every which way are Newt’s adorable magical creatures, including a yoyo bat, a radioactive rhino, an invisible sloth, and a travel-sized Groot. Fantastic Beasts could not have been made ten years ago. The visual effects are beautiful and mesmerizing, whether we’re staring at a storm cloud made of glass or an uncomfortably close hummingbird/moth chimera. It’s a beautiful viewing experience that evolves seamlessly from the tone of The Deathly Hallows.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t parody the Harry Potter series or point to it too frequently. There are a few dropped dragon eggs for the fans who expect to hear or see something familiar, but on the whole, Fantastic Beasts is a perfect spinoff series. That’s not to say it will make sense to someone who’s never seen or read Harry Potter before (the rarest creature of all). Fantastic Beasts is beautifully packed with wonder, an unpredictable villain, layers of subplots, and meanings you can sit down and discuss at length. I would watch it again today if I could. It’s a stupifine 9/10.