By Centerspread Editor Mallika Gupta & Feature Editor Kevin Li
The long-awaited first installment of J.K. Rowling’s five-part prequel to her renowned wizarding world entices an entire generation of Harry Potter readers to theaters. Over the course of a little more than two hours, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them casts a spell that enchants and whisks every viewer on a turbulent ride that delves into themes previously left unexplored.
Newt Scamander’s (Eddie Redmayne) arrival in post-World War One New York City pushes the already tense relationship between the magical community and no-maj’s (non-magical folk) further toward a breaking point. The accidental release of Scamander’s magical creatures by no-maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) sets the anti-magic Second Salemers further along the warpath to expose and eliminate wizards in New York. Aided by disgraced ex-auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Scamander must race to round up his beasts and avoid persecution from the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA), all the while facing the threat from an increasingly dangerous dark force brewing within the city.
Steered by returning production crew members from the original Harry Potter films, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them captures much of the same magic that enchanted audiences of the wizarding world over the past two decades. The film makes excellent use of musical pieces from a captivating soundtrack to exaggerate moods ranging from hilarity to anguish. Viewers are able to lose themselves in the details of the intricately-developed American setting, which is enhanced by marvelous stunning visual effects. Reviving recognizable elements like “Hedwig’s Theme” while still introducing audiences to new aspects of this era of magic, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them artfully delivers Harry Potter fan service and sheds Hollywood’s trend of downward spiralling cinematic universe extensions.
Just as instrumental as the behind-the-scenes work of the production crew is the sparkle that the on-screen cast gives to the movie. Redmayne, playing main character Scamander, excels in bringing a naive nonchalance to his character while also repeatedly perplexing his non-magical counterpart, Kowalski, with his magical hoodoo. Fogler plays the role of Kowalski beautifully, allowing his nonplussed cluelessness and Redmayne’s cheerful brashness to dovetail to hilarious effect. Goldstein, played by Waterston, plays a similar role as a foil to Scamander, but unlike Kowalski, the character’s backstory and lack of meaningful connection to Scamander other than a hinted-at romance sets the table for the next four movies in the series.
Whereas previous Harry Potter films are almost exclusively limited to the halls of Hogwarts and occasionally London, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them presents the magical world as seen from the Big Apple — showing viewers how other countries see magic and its accompanying chaotic baggage. From here, the movie builds a central theme — warning about the dangers of repression and fear of the different. From the threat posed by Grindelwald to the unnerving Second Salemers, the repression and religious fervor borne out of fear are references to history from both the original Harry Potter series and our own.
Though it thoughtfully delves into new areas of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sometimes does not add sufficient significance to certain aspects of the plot, leaving them disconnected from the bulk of the story. While attempting to lay a substantial foundation for the subsequent plotlines in later movies, the film sells itself short.
The film does have its sticking points, but Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them hits home where it counts — delivering wildly exotic magical creatures, irresistible intrigue, and cauldronfuls of entertainment. Unconstrained by a previously published written storyline, the film is able to freely broaden the scope of Rowling’s magical mythology, luring magical adventurers, both new and old, to the world that has been loved for so long. Dementors beware — fans will be able to produce their best patronuses after watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
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