Review – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

First of all, the TL;DR: Five years after we thought that the Harry Potter films were over, Fantastic Beasts has arrived – and it’s a delight. This action-packed spectacle is filled with period music, engaging character interactions, and a well-paced story. I believe both veterans and muggles alike will find something to love. 9/10.

The Review [Warning: May Contain Spoilers]:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was a wonderful film. Set in New York City during the 1920’s, it took the previous lore of Rowling’s Harry Potter universe and set out to explore entirely new directions. The film managed to interconnect excellently with the original seven (ish) movies by its choice of main character. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) comes from the past of the British Wizarding World which experienced viewers are already familiar with and travels to new territory with as little knowledge as the audience does. He establishes a strong connection to the rest of the franchise through his background, yet still develops and grows the story of the Wizarding World in a new and interesting direction.

Not that you must be a veteran of the Harry Potter franchise to enjoy Fantastic Beasts! While the whole story is set with a backdrop of the global hunt for Gellert Grindelwald (a figure who, in the fictional history of Harry Potter, later inspired the now-infamous Voldemort) following the first World War, I don’t believe that the plot requires thorough prior knowledge of the backstory to the world of Harry Potter, or much knowledge of the original series. Indeed, I would probably recommend Fantastic Beasts as perhaps the best introduction to the Wizarding World for new viewers (apart from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, that is).

The film opens with Newt arriving in a New York City ravaged by mysterious attacks – an unknown magical creature or force is rampaging about the city. Meanwhile, a new movement among “No-Majs” (the equivalent term to muggle) is calling for witch hunts under the banner of “New Salem.” The small wooden 1700s church of the New Salemers creates an interesting and troubling dissonance with the bustling aura of the Roaring Twenties which otherwise dominates the film.

Shortly after arriving, Newt loses his briefcase (which is filled with endearing and entertaining magical critters) in an accidental mishap, and is brought to MACUSA (the Magical Congress of the United States of America; the equivalent to the British Ministry of Magic) by Tina (Katherine Waterston), an ex-Auror (the magical police). They recover the briefcase – which has ended up in the hands of Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj, and begin tracking down the titular Beasts.

The plot twines and collides as Newt and Tina become accused of intentionally letting loose beasts under the orders of the nefarious (and absent) Grindelwald; they are sentenced to death, but saved at the last minute by the actions of Jacob and Queenie (Tina’s outwardly vapid sister, played by Alison Sudol). The quartet flees MACUSA and goes in pursuit of an Obscurus, the mysterious creature which has been causing the troubles throughout New York City. The story’s threads eventually wind together into a delightful, complicated climax which unmasks Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and left me feeling an enjoyable mixture of satisfied and thoughtful.

The writing is enjoyable, the character interactions are delightful, and the filming and effects are spectacular. What struck me the most in Fantastic Beasts, though, was actually the music. I found that throughout the film the music was consistently fitting and powerful. By mixing elements of John Williams’ iconic score for the Harry Potter films with a Twenties piano jazz, the score of Fantastic Beasts felt both nostalgic and new; it was a perfect blend of the old films with the new (old) setting.

Another delight was the small details scattered about the film which hinted at the greater lore of the Wizarding World; mentions of magical schools, of familiar family names – even Newt’s scarf (black and gold; Hufflepuff colors) hinted at a broad connection to the franchise as a whole. These details won’t be noticed by new viewers to the series – and no harm is done in missing them – but for veterans, Fantastic Beasts these little details offer a treasure trove of meaning.

I heartily recommend Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them to anyone who likes films which are a little action, a little mystery, and generally magical. Those who don’t like fantasy in general may have trouble finding joy in this film, but I find that difficult to believe. The pacing, acting, and characters are so well done that it isn’t even really about the magic – it’s about the story, and that’s why Fantastic Beasts is so… Fantastic.

(Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

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