J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the newest addition to the wizarding world we first discovered through the pages of Harry Potter. Seeing as how this story comes long before Harry’s journey began, the audience needed someone to introduce us to this “new” world. While Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander was (excuse the phrase) “the chosen one,” it turns out he wasn’t quite the right person for the job. I suggest Queenie and Jacob are the real stars of Fantastic Beasts.
As a longtime Potterhead, I found Fantastic Beasts delightful. It made me “ooh” and “ahh” and laugh more than I expected to. It also went way darker than I expected it to. But even as someone who knew a great deal of the general background involved in this story before going into the theater, I couldn’t help but feel audiences were getting an awkward initiation into this intended five-film franchise. I can see how Newt made the most obvious sense to lead the cast as he’s a character already existing in the Potterverse, but once he’s viewed in the context of the film you realize his isn’t the most interesting story.
While we’ll doubtlessly learn more about Newt as the films go on. What we learn in this initial outing is that he’s very uncomfortable in the outside world, obviously preferring his beasts over humans. You can see it clear as day in his posture and mannerisms in New York City versus the time in his expandable suitcase. He goes from standing hunched over and brushing off anyone attempting to speak to him as quickly as possible to bright-eyed true happiness in taking care of his magical creatures. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact it’s nice to see “leading men” who aren’t shoved into a Hollywood stereotype. But when it comes to actually leading the film amongst an ensemble, Newt didn’t work for me.
Just as Harry Potter was an outsider to the wizarding world, Newt is an outsider to the magical community in America but still fairly “in the know.” It’s Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski who’s the real outsider in Fantastic Beasts and that makes him the perfect audience stand-in. His characterization, and Fogler’s delivery, made for the most entertaining character of the film for me (second only to the niffler, who really stole the show if we’re all being honest). Watching him discover the wizarding world, its joys and horrors, was what pulled me in and kept me wanting more. He’s a regular 1920s guy who works in a factory and suddenly he’s Apparating and attempting to tackle creatures he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams. That type of wonder is what the wizarding world is built on for the audience – we are the Muggles. But he wasn’t the only character to grab my heart.
I’ve only seen Redmayne in a few roles – Les Misérables, The Theory of Everything, and Jupiter Ascending – but in all of them he had a real presence on the screen. Newt doesn’t and that makes me concerned for the franchise moving forward. Especially since Katherine Waterston’s character, Porpentina (Tina) Goldstein, also fell a bit flat for me. She and her sister Queenie Goldstein (played by Alison Sudol) lost their parents at a very young age to dragon pox. To my mind, that alone would have made them sympathetic characters with a likely dramatic backstory, and more deserving of taking the lead in this film. But compared to Tina’s strict, authoritative view, Queenie was a breath of fresh air and absolutely lit up the screen like an old Hollywood starlet with this ’20s backdrop.
Queenie is the epitome of the “Roaring Twenties” modern woman. A flapper bombshell, though not depicted with as much of the va-va-va-voom of Marilyn Monroe’s quirky characters of the ’50s (How to Marry a Millionaire, Some Like It Hot), but certainly in that vein. While she looks the type to party all night after having applied rouge to her knees, we don’t actually see that in the film. What we do see is someone who is incredibly warm, kind, and brave. Like a few of Monroe’s characters, Queenie uses others’ assumptions about her to gain traction in the story, but she plays into those stereotypes with her eyes and mind wide open.
Speaking of which, considering she’s a Legilimens and constantly hearing the thoughts running through peoples’ minds, you’d think she’d be more jaded. She’s not. At all. That’s so refreshing! Her skill creates in her a sense of no boundaries, which doesn’t sit well with everyone, but seems to warm Jacob to her immediately. Their budding romance is a pleasure to watch, especially compared to the development (or lack thereof) between Tina and Newt, who barely have more than surface conversations together yet clearly are headed for a relationship. A lot is left unsaid between Queenie and Jacob thanks to her Legilimency, but between her enthusiasm for life in general and his enthusiasm for her, they are a sight to behold. I don’t doubt there are many who’ve already fallen in love with Newt and found him to be a welcoming presence into (or back into) the wizarding world but to me, he can’t hold a candle to Queenie and Jacob, the true breakout stars of Fantastic Beasts.