J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding world has returned to the big screen. The first entry in the Fantastic Beasts story seems like it’s going into territory that’s more familiar than the advertising would have you believe.
The year is 1926. Newt Scamader (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed a global research excursion to find an document magical creatures. He plans to publish his research as a book that will be known as “Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them”. In the future, that book will later be a textbook used by Harry Potter and friends at Hogwarts. In the present day, Newt has stopped in New York City with a case full of these magical beasts. His plan is to travel to Arizona to release a formerly trafficked thunderbird named “Frank” to the wilds of Arizona. While he’s there, one of his magical creatures escapes and starts hoarding shiny things. While Newt is trying to capture the beast, he runs into an aspiring baker named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt ends up exposing Jacob to magic while trying to retrieve his beast. They end up getting their suitcases mixed up before Newt is dragged off to the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) by Porpetina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) for breaking several magical laws. Tina is a recently demoted Auror (magic police officer), who lost her position for publicly going after a No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) family who are looking to start up modern witch hunts. While Newt is being held at MACUSA, Jacob opens his case and releases several of Newt’s beasts into the city.
At the same time, there has been a rash of unexplained destruction going on in NYC. Another Auror, Graves (Colin Farrell), has been investigating these incidents as well as trying to find a child who will manifest a great power. He believes that the key to finding this child is staying close to the street urchins taken in by a woman named Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). This just so happens to be the same witch-hunters that Tina was going after. Graves has befriended a boy named Credence (Ezra Miller), whom Mary Lou seems to have a particular disdain for and beats regularly. It seems like Graves believes that the destruction and the child are related but, publicly, he backs the idea that its Newt’s beasts that are causing the destruction. The accusation is that Newt is a follower of the fanatic Grindewlald (Johnny Depp) and that he’s released the beasts in order to expose the magic community to the public.
Newt seems to want to stay out of the affairs of the MACUSA and spends most of his time avoiding them while trying to collect his beasts before they are killed by the authorities. He is initially helped by Kowalski, Tina and her mind reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). However, he and Kowalski sneak out to track the beasts because he’s worried about involving the authorities. When Tina finds this out, she turns him in to MACUSA. What Tina doesn’t realize is that the mysterious force has killed a prominent human politician, making Newt a wanted man and Tina guilty by association. Newt recognizes that the damage that’s been done is the work of an Obscurus. An Obscurus is a magical parasitic energy that’s created when a young witch or wizard, known as an Obscurial, suppresses their magic. Their magic becomes an Obscurus, which lashes out at whatever oppresses or threatens the child but also usually ends up killing the child before they are 10.
With the help of Queenie and Kowalski, Newt is able to escape with Tina. In order to prevent the magical beasts from being blamed for the Obscurus’ damage, they set out to quickly capture the remaining beasts. During the chase, Newt is able to show his new friends the wonders of the beasts that he keeps. While they are doing this, Graves is trying to close in on the identity of the Obscurial. He believes it to be Credence’s sister (which is what the movie leads you to believe), but it turns out to be Credence himself. Realizing that Credence is extraordinarily powerful to have lived far past the normal lifespan of an Obscurial, Graves tries to recruit him. As Credence goes out of control, Tina and Newt rush to rescue him from himself and the MACUSA forces that are closing in on him. The leads to a standoff between all of the parties that ends with Credence being killed by the MACUSA forces.
During all of this, Newt has realizes that Graves is not who he claims to be and reveals him to be Grindelwald in disguise. Grindewald is taken into custody and Newt and friends are now revered as heroes. However, the entire incident has been seen by most of New York. Using a combination of venom and Frank’s storm abilities, Newt is able to erase the entire cities memories of magic. Unfortunately, that also includes erasing the memory of his new friend Kowalski. Kowalski has his memories erased, but Newt anonymously leaves him collateral to get a loan for his bakery where we later see Queenie checking in on him. Newt also says a fond goodbye to Tina, who has been reinstated as an Auror, before promising to return to deliver his book to her in person.
- We find out that Newt was kicked out of Hogwarts because he allowed an animal to endanger the lives of other students. He was apparently also a favored student of Dumbeldore. We don’t know exactly why, but I’m sure that some people will suggest that it’s because the two had a relationship.
- Not sure what the significance of this is, but Newt is the younger brother of a war hero.
- Newt did also apparently have some kind of relationship with Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz). We don’t know much about it, but we know that it’s in his past and that it’s sore spot for Newt.
What did I think?
Let me start off by saying that I am not a Harry Potter fan. I watched the movies, but never read the books and I don’t have much more than a passing interest in the deeper mythology of the HP story. So, I wasn’t really deeply longing to go back into this world. Even so, I wasn’t opposed to going along for the ride.
I went into this movie expecting to watch some kind of magical Crocodile Hunter chasing down a bunch of monsters. Instead, this is more like watching a magical Jack Hanna try to do his job only to unexpectedly get dropped into the middle of some kind of magical government conspiracy. I’m sure that those references won’t make sense to everyone, but the point is that Newt was more caretaker than adventurer and the movie was ultimately more about the creeping evil of Grindelwald than it was about the beasts. I’m not saying that either of these is an inherently bad thing, it’s just not what I was expecting.
I liked the concept of the Newt Scamander character. He’s essentially a magical zoo keeper, made in the mold of the modern Sherlock Holmes. Someone who’s got a high level of knowledge (granted, it’s about a specific subject) and is focused on his own mission regardless of what’s going on around him. He’s also a much more empathetic character, especially when it comes to caring about the lives of his animals.
What I didn’t like about him is that he seems to be purposefully obtuse. For example, he could’ve easily communicated to the MACUSA about his beasts being missing earlier in the movie but, for vague plot reasons, he decided to basically clam up about everything until he too Kawolski into his case. I get that they wanted him to be quirky but, dude, simple communication could’ve saved us a lot of trouble. There was also no real explanation for why a magical zookeeper was the only person in the room full of wizards that knew how to identify and deal with Obscurials. Not to mention his whole child saving mission in Syria or the fact that he’s the younger brother of a war hero. There’s a lot of stuff about his character that’s just randomly thrown about. Maybe it’s something that Potter fans will understand but, to me, it was just confusing and a bit frustrating.
Not quite as bad, was the fact that the movie wasn’t really about the beasts. They were really just an excuse for Newt to get pulled into the confrontation between the MACUSA and Grindewald. They beasts themselves aren’t really much more than takes on existing or mythical creatures. They’re not bad to look at, but I’m glad the entire movie wasn’t about them.
The real conflict of the conflict of the movie has to do with the Grindelwald and his unexplained interest in the Obscurial. Really, most of Grindewald’s actions are unexplained. We don’t know who the people were that he killed at the beginning of the movie, or why he killed them. I also don’t understand why he chose to disguise himself as Colin Farrell while still keeping that easily identifiable haircut, making it really obvious who he was for the whole movie. I’m also not sure how I feel about Johnny Depp being the big bad that’s going to persist through this series of movies. Between Redmayne’s awkward mannerisms and behavior as Scamander and the way that Depp usually plays these types of characters, this seems like it could be an incredibly awkward rivalry between the two characters.
Despite the unexplained facets of it, I did really like the Obscurial story line. Mostly because of the way that the movie misdirected the Barebone children. It was obvious that one of those kids was more than they appeared, but they made it seem like it was the little girl, while letting Ezra Miller’s character lurk in the background. It’s also worth mentioning that Miller does a great job playing this character, who really took the brunt of the punishment in the movie. His character and the domestic abuse he suffered, also really showed that this is going to be a bit of a more mature series than it’s predecessor.
In the end, the movie was just okay for me. It might have been elevated if I cared more about seeing more of the HP mythology fleshed out, and I’m sure that there were a bunch of references that went over my head. Without any of that, I think the movie does a decent job at introducing a new hero and setting up a series that could have some high stakes. Although I don’t think I’ll be waiting for the sequels with baited breath, I think this movie did enough to get me to go watch them in theaters.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
- Eddie Redmayne plays a unique lead character that doesn't follow traditional archetypes
- Dan Fogler's Kowalski is a perfect sidekick and the heart of the movie
- It's a familiar but different look into the wizarding world created by J.K. Rowling
- While Newt's quirks make him unique, he is a bit offputting or frustrating as a lead character because he seems unneccessarily obtuse
- The big
- Ultimately, the advertised story about fantastic beasts may be the least interesting part of this movie