It’s been fifteen years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in theaters.
To many of us, that is a day we will never forget. I still remember going to see it with my best friend at the time, and we would see just about every other one in theater –including the last one a decade later.
The effect that Harry Potter has had on millions of lives is incalculable. Books sell in droves; people get tattoos, write fan-fiction, and get lost into the world that J.K. Rowling created and let our imaginations run loose in. So when the books came to an end, and as we read those final words “All was well,” many of us felt the sense of loss equitable to a close friend or family member.
I know I certainly went through a grieving process as I sat stunned for about two weeks, not quite knowing what to think or feel. But there were always the movies, and miraculously they never failed in bringing that magic to the screen.
But us fans were stunned by the news that a brand new spin-off would take place, written by Rowling herself, and that it would take place within the same universe—if only nearly a century prior on a different continent. Would it be worth it? Would there still be that same sense of awe and wonder?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not Harry Potter, therefore we cannot compare them. Yes, it takes place in the same universe, it’s written by the same person and it’s directed by David Yates who helmed the final five Harry Potter films, but we still can’t hold the two up to each other and look for similarities and differences.
Fantastic Beasts (and its supposed four sequels) is its own entity. There are obvious easter eggs and allusions that any true fan will notice, but the characters are different, the location is different, and the mood is different.
Fantastic Beasts finds Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in America for unknown purposes, toting a magical briefcase filled with wonderful and amazing creatures. Without explaining much, we are thrust into a world of draconian laws separating No-Maj (the American version of Muggles) and the wizarding world. Like in England, the witches and wizards have their own form of government with a president and all, though we don’t get nearly enough exposition on its inner-workings, a drawback the film suffers from immensely as it has no literature for fans to fill in the blanks.
In addition, there is an extremist group led by the sinister Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who try desperately to out the wizarding world and bring in a new Salem Witch Trial. Her children are slaves to her as she beats them mercilessly, though Mary Lou is never given enough time to really sink into the audiences skin. Yes we hate her, but she’s the type of person we can really loathe, but unfortunately there is simply too much exposition needed that a lot of the outlying characters get brushed over.
So after Newt’s briefcase lets loose several beasts across the city, he teams up with a No-Maj, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a fellow witch, Tina Goldstein (Kathleen Waterston) and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) to track them down. To add another layer to the already packed story, a mysterious invisible monster has been attacking the city, leaving destruction in its wake, and on top of that there is a connection between Percival Graves, a higher up in the wizard government, and the eerie son of Mary Lou, Creedence (Ezra Miller).
Thankfully, all of these characters are wonderfully written and performed. Redmayne brings a cute goofiness to Newt, making him entirely unforgettable as he bumbles his way along, driven by his love and care for his beasts. Waterston is no different; she has had her fair share of hard-knocks, but her persistence and charm keep her going. But it’s Fogler who really steals the scenes he’s in, making us cackle with laughter and even bringing us close to tears in the final moments of the movie.
Reinventing John William’s classic score, James Newton Howard keeps to the familiar with an added touch of grandiose. Combine that with the lush sets with impeccable detail, beautiful costumes and dazzling effects, and there’s no shortage of magic and wonder. Any Potter fan will find much to love here, even if the story has a little too much going for it.
Whether or not you’re a complete Harry Potter fanatic or just a casual enjoyer, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has more than enough magic in it to charm the pants off of you. Though its a little cramped in terms of exposition, the characters, sets, and the performances all make for one magical experience.