I admit, I was sceptical about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The Harry Potter franchise seems to have turned into a bit of a cash cow recently, with both Fantastic Beasts and the West End play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child released in book form as well as theatrically, which just seems a bit crass, frankly.
But for someone of my generation actually seeing the film at some point seemed, well, compulsory. Plus, the delightful Eddie Redmayne (who, by the way, is worth the price of admission all by himself, even if we did go on Saver Night) was very much a temptation.
Fantastic Beasts, then, set in the Harry Potter universe in 1926 (forty-odd years before the events of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone), sees twenty-something wizard Newt Scamander (played by the lovely Eddie) arriving in New York with a suitcase full of various magical creatures, all of which, incidentally, are outlawed by the American wizarding community. Inevitably, some of the creatures escape.
The plot is rather loose: it sees Eddie lurching Britishly and oddly Doctor Who-ishly across New York, rounding up – or, at least, attempting to round up – his creatures, which are causing various forms of chaos in various ways, and in the process entangling with the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, MACUSA. In particular, he’s trailed and occasionally aided by Porpentina Goldstein, an ex-Auror demoted for being a little too dedicated to her duty, her sister Queenie – a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if ever I saw one – and genial Muggle Jacob Kowalski whom Newt accidentally draws into the magical world. (By the way, the American word for “Muggle”, “No-Maj”, may be the most ridiculous name I have heard in a long time. And I’ve read a lot of high fantasy.)
Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first outing as a screenwriter, and it seems to mark something of a return to what’s good about her writing. In particular, like the early Harry Potter books, the film’s whimsical surface overlies something much darker: for beneath New York’s lushly rendered 1920s glamour (ooh, flapper dresses and diamond necklaces and beautiful long peacoats) roils a melting pot of tension and mistrust. Particularly, the shadow of Gellert Grindelwald, who will be familiar to readers of the later Harry Potter books as essentially the wizarding world’s Hitler analogue, lies long across David Yates’ frames. A sub-plot sees the rise of a Muggle movement called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, which holds that Witches Are Among Us and should be burned at the stake, and which is led by a nasty, puritanical woman, Mary Lou Barebone, an abusive mother whose intolerance of magic proves disastrous. A few bare scenes take us into the political upper echelons of Muggle New York society: a dinner hosted by a senator running for President is imagistically very reminiscent of Nazism (the senator speaks in front of a blown-up banner depicting himself, in a hall of classical marble and high ceilings), while a scene with the senator’s media tycoon father feels disturbingly Trumpian. Not even MACUSA escapes: its president (unfortunately the only person of colour in the film) is ruthless and contemptuous towards her staff, towards poor Eddie, and towards the film’s most tragic character, Mary Lou’s adopted son Credence. There is a lot going on here, politically, and it makes what could have been a frivolous cash cow actually a rather grounded look at the poison and unrest that intolerance and ungentleness can generate. It’s a credit to Rowling’s writing, too, that this simmering tension, although it does give a tone of bittersweetness to the film, doesn’t drag it down into “depressing” territory: the tragedy and the terror are leavened and anchored by Newt’s goodheartedness and the frequently adorable antics of his animals, as well as some lovely production design.
I didn’t think I’d say this, but I’m actually very interested to see what Rowling comes up with for the inevitable sequel. Fantastic Beasts is, like Harry Potter was when it was first published, an unexpected surprise.