“But what if I liked the Harry Potter movies well enough, but I’m not a super-fan? Will I like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?” This is the second most-asked question I’ve been asked since seeing Fantastic Beasts. (It was number one until, “Is this really the apocalypse?” had a late, unexpected recent surge.) Anyway, the description above describes me. I never read the Harry Potter books and I enjoyed the movies well enough, having seen each one once and feel pretty satisfied that one viewing will hold me over until the sweet, warm grasp of death finally comes. (It’s been a long week.) So, yes, I was one of those people who thought he might not be the target audience a deep dive into what was going on in this fictional universe across an ocean, fifty some years before Harry Potter was even born.
I enjoyed Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them quite a bit. And certainly much more than I thought I would. Working from a script by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, director David Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films) does a great job of telling a brand-new story, while somehow making it feel familiar. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them somehow feels both unique, yet very much set in the world of Harry Potter.
Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is a different kind of protagonist for these movies. He’s very much not Harry Potter. He’s quirky, shy and doesn’t consider himself much of a hero – or much someone who even enjoys the company of other people. At one point, he even mentions that people find him annoying. He likes his creatures. And he’s come to New York City (circa 1926) to collect some more creatures. (He keeps these creatures in a magical suitcase, which acts as a magical portal of sorts to another world where all these creatures live.) When a few of his creatures escape after his briefcase is mixed up with the briefcase of a No-Maj’s (played by Dan Fogler; also: this is what Muggles are called in the United States), he draws the attention of the local Magical Congress of the United States of America and is brought in for questioning by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Hey, and guess who else is really quirky? Tina Goldstein. So now we have a quirky couple.
Here’s kind of a strange thing: There’s a lot going on in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is not a simple movie. While watching, there were a couple times I thought to myself, Oh, wow, there’s another subplot. Okay then!. So, what’s all going on in this movie?
– Newt Scamander has unwittingly unleashed several creatures that are now on the loose in New York City and he has to find them.
– Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the director of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, is trying to find Newt Scamander and his methods get more and more aggressive.
– Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, which wants to rid the world of wizards.
– Mary Lou Barebone also has a few adopted children, and it seems like one of them may be responsible for an “obscurus” that’s been wrecking havoc around New York. (An obscurus happens when wizards suppress their true selves.)
– Jon Voight plays Henry Shaw, a powerful publisher whose senator son is planning to run for president.
– Then there’s poor Jacob Kowalski (Fogler) who is dragged into this whole mess with the briefcase mixup, but then starts to fall in love with Tina Goldstein’s wizard sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol).
Now, both Newt and Percival are separately looking to find the mysterious obscurus. This sets up one of the film’s most interesting plot points: The Magical Congress of the United States of America wants to destroy the obscurus, but both Newt and Percival do not want this to happen. Newt wants to try to save the person responsible (wizards who turn into an obscurus have a high mortality rate), while Percival wants to harness its power. It sets up an almost Charles Xavier-versus-Magneto type of dichotomy: Both of these men want the same thing, but disagree on how that should be accomplished. It’s smart, which makes the film interesting.
So here we are, embarking on five new movies set in the world of Harry Potter, only without Harry Potter. Instead of The Chosen One, out protagonist is a man no one really wants much to do with, let alone choose as a savior, but here he is. And it somehow all works because of that. Newt Scamander is nothing like Harry, but it has to be this way. It all has to be different. And it is, but, again, with just enough “sameness” to make us feel like we are at home again. I’m looking forward to wherever these movies are taking us. (And since there’s not much out there in terms of source material, that could be anywhere. And that’s kind of exciting.)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.