Potter prequel proves ‘fantastic’ addition to wizarding world

Originally published by the Augustana Mirror on December 8, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is not a Harry Potter movie. There’s no mention of the boy who lived, that infamous scar or those flying snitches (golden or otherwise). A passing remark concerning Albus Dumbledore is the only taste we get of Hogwarts and its magic.

That being said, Fantastic Beasts, directed by David Yates with a screenplay by J.K. Rowling, takes us back to the wizarding world like no Potter movie before did, or for that matter, could. This cinematic adventure—brimming with art deco grandeur, touches of Prohibition-era Puritanism, and, what else, fantastic beasts—is set in 1920’s New York City, a refreshingly historic departure from Harry’s recognizably modern world.

Based on Rowling’s 2001 pseudo textbook of the same name, Fantastic Beasts follows the sometimes fantastic, sometimes awkward adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he journeys through the Big Apple in search of his escaped magical creatures. Along the way Scamander (literally) runs into wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a no-maj (Harry would call him a muggle) who decides it’s a good idea to help Scamander with his search after being attacked by one of his creatures … naturally.

But as we know from previous Potter films, unrestrained magic is a no-no in the wizarding world, especially at this time when the anti-wizarding movement, called the Second Salemers, is gaining steam, attempting to rid the world of magic once and for all.

So Scamander’s beast hunt turns into a witch hunt between the nervous animal-lover, the Second Salemers and the American version of Britain’s Ministry of Magic, MACUSA. Oh, and dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, Voldemort’s predecessor, is wreaking havoc abroad and may be making his way to the U.S.—just the usual wizarding world drama, what could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, a lot, including unleashing a mega-rhino on Central Park and letting a mysterious magical force called an Obscurus loose on 5th Avenue. But these types of antics are just a typical day in the life for Rowling’s magical characters.

Without giving away too many secrets, Fantastic Beasts is a mixed bag of stunning visual effects, character acting and classic Potter magic. At times bringing to mind Sorcerer’s Stone’s whimsy and innocence with its fresh take on wizarding life in the 20th century, in other moments the film grows darker than even scenes in Deathly Hollows dared, specifically with its portrayal of the Second Salemers and the group’s possessive leader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

The scenes with Mary Lou and her group of adopted adherents—children she picked out of orphanages and named things like Modesty and Credence—contain echoes of classic horror movies featuring children, think The Exorcist or The Sixth Sense. One of Mary Lou’s children may possess magical powers, an idea that’s antithetical to the movement and incurs her wrath on all the charges.

Though the anti-wizard plotline is different than anything we’ve seen before with Potter, it’s politically aware in a way Rowling has always been with the series. In our current political climate of division and apprehension, Rowling’s anti-wizarding movement is able to smartly mirror some of the fears and failures of society today. It’s not overt, but like so many other elements in Fantastic Beasts, it works.

Something that doesn’t work? —Redmayne’s moonlighting as a hero. He’s lovably awkward, yes, but it’s hard to believe the adventurer who tamed a briefcase full of magical creatures can be that bumbling and shy in real life. It’s like he’s trying too hard to be likable, a trait the young wizard who lived under the stairs never had to reach for.

Fantastic Beasts is only the first of what Rowling promised will be a five-part series following Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s tenuous relationship almost 50 years before Harry receives his Hogwarts letter. But the movie does what any good series opener should do: gives a taste for a new story, while leaving viewers wanting more. Fantastic Beasts has its flaws, but this joyful return to the wizarding world is thoroughly enjoyable despite them. It’s magic after all, something we could all use a bit of right now.

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