Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Ever since the Harry Potter series ended, fans have been clamoring for more.  Thing is, the fans have grown up since following the team at Hogwarts.  J. K. Rowling perfectly timed her series of seven books so that fans who started reading at the age that started at the beginning of Harry's adventures aged with him.  The books got darker and more adult as they went along.

Because of frequent press releases from Rowling, we know largely what happened to Harry, Ron and Hermione over the years, and a recent play has even kept us up to date.  This is despite Rowling originally intending to abandon the Potter universe for more traditional fiction.  It didn't work out as well as she intended, and I am sure the money to do another series was irresistible. Therefore, we have the beginning of a five-part series based on one of Hogwarts's textbooks, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, by Newt Scamander. 

We already have seen what problems both Hagrid and Charles Weasley have caused with their studies.  Turns out these fears originally led to the banning, and even hunting, of magical creatures 70 years prior.  In December 1926, Newt (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a case full of the creatures.  There are already problems in the wizarding world: some strange beast is terrorizing the muggles of New York (referred to as "no-majes" in the States) and threatening to expose the existence of magic to the world at large.  The worry is not groundless, as a group of religious fanatics called Second Salem are actively trying to get the public at large to recognize that witches live among them largely so that they can start a genocide against magic users. 

Not to mention there is also an evil wizard named Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) loose in the world, hiding out after giving authorities in Europe the slip.  Grindelwald would like nothing more than to instigate such a conflict between muggles and wizards, as he believes that the magic community remains oppressed.

While watching a speech by Second Salem leader Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), one of Newt's creatures gets loose and begins to wreak havoc at bank, stealing everything that is shiny.  While attempting to recapture it he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a WWI veteran attempting to get a loan to open a bakery and get out of his job at a local canning factory.  Circumstances result in Newt having to perform magic with Kowalski in proximity, and Jacob manages to run away before Newt can obliviate him.  This is all observed by Tina (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced auror who brings in Newt for importing creatures into the country and failure to properly register his wand.  It turns out, though, that Jacob took Newt's case in the confusion. The result is that several of the creatures escape and start running amok in New York.

One of the creatures Newt has is an obscurus, which also happens to be the beast that is terrorizing New York. An obscurus happens to be a creature created by a wizard in hiding in which all his or her magical powers are concentrated, and which acts out for protection.  It typically has a short lifetime, as does its user, and a sinister auror named Graves (Colin Farrell) is trying to find the source of the one in New York.  For that, he has tasked Barebone's adopted son Credence (Ezra Miller) with finding the child behind it.  Once the obscurus kills a senatorial candidate (Josh Cowdery), Newt is blamed, and Tina is accused of hiding him.  Both are sentenced to death, but manage to escape with the help of Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudal), who also provides safe harbor for the group and has a growing affection for Jacob.

As it becomes clearer that Graves may be using his auror position for his own gains, the group sets out to find the obscurus and the person behind it as the population of New York begins to learn the truth of the magic users living among them.

I admire J. K. Rowling for just going for the movie route this time around instead of relying on adaptations of her books.  The Harry Potter films ran from decent to excellent, but out of necessity quite a bit was left out, sometimes to the detriment of the series.  It is also smart not to go with the tension of another dark wizard, as we already know what happens to Grindelwald (Dumbledore defeats him in 1945, imprisons him in his own tower, and Grindelwald is killed by Voldemort in 1998).  Since a good part of the later Potter books traded on the fact that the reader did not know who was going to survive, it will be interesting to see how this series progresses when we know the fate of a number of the characters (Scamander is still alive, albeit retired, during the events in the original series).

That is why the introduction of a character like Jacob Kowalski is so important.  At the time, at least in the United States, there is no association between magic users and no-majes, so his burgeoning relationship with Queenie is likely to stand in for certain other barriers that would be broken throughout the 20th century.  He is also the most complex character so far.  I'm sure we'll get some more backstory on Scamander, who seems to either only be at home among his beasts or purposely hides himself behind an awkward facade so that he can pass below the notice of others as he goes about his goals.  Jacob, however, is the wild card, and it remains to be seen if the character becomes more integral to whatever is going to happen or a heavy handed metaphor.

The reason for a fear of the latter is because of the Barebone family.  Mary Lou lives with adopted children who came from a magical family.  She beats them repeatedly and leads a crusade to rid the world of magic users.  Since it has already said that some of the movie relates to her experiences of getting her books published in the United States, it is clear that the Second Salem fanatics, without subtlety, represent some of the groups that were claiming her books promoted the occult and refused to let their children read them.  It adds some initial conflict in the story, but hopefully neither of the girls take up their mother's cause.  Rowling is famous for writing people into her books that have made her angry at one point or another in life and making sure they get their comeuppance, if only in a literary manner.  Any further into this aspect would be just beating a dead horse.

This is a great beginning to revealing more about the universe that Rowling created, so I am hoping she keeps up with the sense of wonder that has carried over from the original books and into this film.  This could have just as easily have been the cynical cash grab many expected it to be, but it fits well with the other books (and movies) and does its job as a great opening chapter.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Time: 133 minutes
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell
Director: David Yates


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