Beloved author J.K. Rowling takes the screenwriter’s role in bringing her universe to the screen for the first time with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — a film we now know is the first in a planned pentalogy that will span 19 years, from 1926 New York in this, the first film, to 1945. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them we are introduced to Newt Scamander, a man who has only ever been a byline on a list of Hogwarts textbooks prior to this film. Newt is young, out of school, but still young, and we meet him traveling into Manhattan with a suitcase that’s full-to-bursting with magical creatures. These creatures are forbidden in the Big Apple, where, as in the rest of the United States, relationships and contact between wizards and no-majs (muggles in the Queen’s English) are heavily restricted and the statue of secrecy is heavily guarded. And so, when a mix-up leads to the escape of several of these beasts, it creates big problems for Newt and everyone with whom he comes into contact.
As an aside, dear reader, I won’t pretend that I came to this movie and I wrote this review as anything short of a Harry Potter devotee. I flew to New York explicitly to attend an advance charity screening of this picture and see it presented in person by Eddie Redmayne and J.K. Rowling. And I’m thrilled that I did. It would be impossible for me to overstate the role of Rowling’s work in my life and personality, and indeed, as a writer. For nearly two decades her work has been an inexhaustible source of comfort, fascination and joy for me. So you see, when I say I cannot come to this film and watch it with the mind of someone outside the fandom, it’s true.
When I heard Rowling’s statements on the timeframe in which this series would take place it confirmed for me everything I already suspected about the trajectory of this series based on the time and place and glimpses of information we’d been given through trailers and photos. Watching the picture solidified all of this, absolutely. I will of course, keep the secrets here, but if you want to know, well … “help at Hogwarts will always be given to those who ask,” — we can talk. For now, I’ll simply say that I see Rowling’s vision and I’m wildly excited about it. I can’t write this review as if I don’t know because Rowling’s on-screen story told me all of this. And so, I’ll state simply for the record, I write this review as what I am, a fan thrilled at the prospect of a story I’ve long wanted told hitting the screen.
Now, back into it. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a film in the Harry Potter universe, but it’s very much a stand-alone story. Fans will hear names and spells they recognize and understand the basic rules, but we’re in a different world. This is decades earlier, on another continent, in a tale peopled by adults. They’re not learning magic and their day-to-day problems are correspondingly quite different than getting a little overzealous on a cheering charm and spending an afternoon a bit giddy. For Newt that means fighting a one man war defending the creatures he loves against prevailing attitudes. For Tina (Katherine Waterston) that’s trying to suppress her investigative instincts and toe the line at work. For Queenie (Alison Sudol) that’s a seemingly impossible quest to find someone who can surprise her. For Jacob (Dan Fogler), the only no-maj in the charismatic quartet that’s finding financing to open the bakery of his dreams. Meanwhile, others are working to further more nefarious ends.
And we, the viewers, get to watch it all unfold in the high style, fashion and bustle of New York in the 1920s. For me, as it will be for many, many others, watching a movie in this universe and having no idea what was going to happen was an entirely new experience. It’s not quite dipping a toe into a new Potter novel for the first time again, but it is a deeply satisfying rush of a tactile experience. We get all the sound and fury of the cinema layered on top of Rowling’s finely tuned world-building and depth of story.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is peopled with new characters to love and a wonderful cast to bring them to life. Eddie Redmayne is all charm, while Sudol and Waterson bring fire and depth. But it’s Fogler who proves to be the ultimate scene stealer — even more than some of Newt’s friskiest companions — winning big laughs and a lot of emotional connection in his capacity as the bemused partner-in-crime.
For this unapologetic fan, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them sets the stage for a massively promising adventure that is dazzling in scope. I’m ready to follow Rowling wherever she wants to take this journey, and I don’t think I’ll be alone in that.