While Harry Potter doesn’t make an appearance in this addition to his seemingly unstoppable series — the new film Fantastic Beasts is set in 1926, 54 years before HP’s birth — it has much of the charm of the other installments. It also has all of the (perhaps unexpected coming from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling) darkness.
We open on Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He’s on a boat, pulling into New York City in that classic “welcome to America!” scene we’ve all seen a thousand times. Expect a lot of similar tropes throughout the film. Some have the familiar coziness of any well-loved children’s story — true love, friendship — while others raise eyebrows — stereotypical “fat man” jokes and a questionable use of dialect featuring an African-American witch.
Discuss such moments after the film; in fact, the whole movie provides ample inspiration for talking about bullying, friendship, difference and even physical abuse.
But before we get to that, the plot: Fantastic Beasts is not technically a book written by Rowling. What she wrote was a 2001 spin-off book of the same name that’s referenced as a textbook in the original seven volumes. That 2001 book she published under the pseudonym Newt Scamander; it’s meant as his guide to, you guessed it, fantastic beasts and where to find them.
The movie mentions the 2001 book but it’s not about it (Scamander has already written his manuscript by the time the movie opens). Don’t dismay, though. Plenty of fantastic beasts show up and they live up to the adjective. A personal favorite: the Niffler, a mole-like creature with a penchant for all things shiny and a sense of humor that had me marveling at the magic of CGI.
Harry Potter has never fit the established, prepackaged, oft-restricting definition of 'children's literature.' Fantastic Beasts is no exception.
Rowling wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, a move that provides a sense of continuity and, I suspect, accounts for much of the whimsy. In the script, she gives a nod to the Wizarding World we already know but as a fan who hasn’t read the series since it debuted, I found myself missing many of the references a more knowledgeable wizard or witch would catch. Of course, there are several easy fixes for this (The Harry Potter Wikipedia, for one). Expect to break them out for those who didn’t catch every detail. It helps.
Now, for that darkness I mentioned. The series that launched a thousand internet forums, Harry Potter has never fit the established, prepackaged, oft-restricting definition of “children’s literature.” Fantastic Beasts is no exception. There are multiple villains, some scarier than others. One that might rattle young viewers: Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). A No-Maj (that’s American for “Muggle”), Barebone forms the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an anti-witchcraft extremist group. She also regularly abuses her three adoptive children.
She particularly hates Credence (Ezra Miller). There are several scenes in the movie of Credence taking off his belt and handing it to Barebone. We never actually see her whip the teenager but the meaning, cast in ominous music and dim lighting, is heavily implied.
Avoiding spoilers, there’s plenty of dark magic, too. Several times I got the creeps like I have in past movies whenever a Dementor appears, and the climactic chase scene features its fair dose of explosions, spooky CGI and, a time or two, dead bodies.
The creatures themselves, however, remain rather tame. That, however, appears to be the point. As Scamander says midway through the film, humans, not beasts, are the most dangerous creatures on the planet.
Bottom line: Should you go? Yes. Fantastic Beasts may not be as riveting as the original Harry Potter movies but it keeps just enough of the good stuff to do what any good film does: transport and entertain. Just ask the young wizard I saw in the audience who brought along his very own wand.
Final tip: We saw Fantastic Beasts at Cinerama, which is playing the film in 70mm for the first week of showings. Not only does that mean higher quality, it means no previews. Not to mention the chocolate popcorn is magical whatever your age.