It’s a low bar to clear but this Harry Potter spinoff/prequel, among the biggest intellectual property a studio could own, is the most relevant and interesting blockbuster of the year (until Star Wars). It’s also the first major studio film to be explicitly anti-Trump/Brexit. Obviously I have political goggles on right now, but this is the worthiest studio film of the year to analyze under these lens.
In 2015, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road envisioned a fascist patriarchal hell-scape while Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight violently tackled race by unflinchingly showing an America built on blood and graves. Earlier this year, Green Room dug up a sub-culture of Neo-Nazis (who expected THEY’D be relevant?). The social, cultural, and political anxieties in cinema have evolved in the past year and it’s now becoming clear what the connections are. Hello 1930s Germany!
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them finds the Potter franchise in a new phase that has to exude familiar fantasy, but introduce likable adult heroes and a new set of villainous fears. For the latter, J.K. Rowling, writing her first ever screenplay, could’ve gone in a ton of different directions but she chose the most startlingly obvious one; populism and white nationalism creeping through politics and into the streets of America and Britain.
David Yates, director of the last four Potter films (2008-2011), returns in the new franchise with similar visual consistency and a lively energy. So, this is the wizarding world you’re familiar with, but instead of 90s London we’re in 1926 Prohibition era New York. The move to America gives the film an added resonance of history with period costumes and music—as well as modern insight.
It’s no secret that Harry Potter is broadly about a hidden world of minorities whose problems and existence are completely unseen by another race (muggles). Rowling is one of the world’s biggest champions of minorities and in the Potter films this was subtext, but here it’s explicit. The obvious issue with this is that almost the entire cast is white… though it’s possible this first chapter is setting up minorities fight for inclusion, so we’ll wait and see. Rowling has expanded her magical world outside of spells, potions, and classic myth into a politically relevant 1920s society with a looming bleakness not even seen in the latter Potter films.
Our new Harry is Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne whose *shrug* fine), an illegal immigrant wizard, who arrives in New York with a suitcase full of undocumented beasts (hardly beasts, they’re cute!), but the America he walks into is not the roaring twenties that we’re used to. It’s a xenophobic world with anti-witch rallies run by an evangelical muggle, a fear driven American election, an evil wizard who wants to oppress muggles, banks that won’t give out loans, and a wizarding government in disarray. MACUSA, the American equivalent of the ministry of magic, have outlawed beasts and the magical world itself is hidden from muggles behind a metaphorical wall. Geeee, does any of this sound familiar?
In a cat and mouse incident at a bank, Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with Jacob Kowalski (an innocently funny Dan Fogler), a No-Maj (American’s word for muggle) factory worker and veteran who was unable to get a loan for his bakery. Like a children’s version of Pandora’s box, Jacob opens the suitcase and the creatures escape into New York City. Newt meets a wizard investigator, Tina Goldstein (the immaculate Katherine Waterston), and together they find Jacob to play Pokemon Go: Harry Potter Edition. Hot on their tail is Percival Graves (Colin Farell), the head Auror (a cop, basically) of MACUSA.
Rowling’s screenplay uses the beasts primarily as a fun, entertaining macguffin while dark, unrelated side plots are simultaneously built up. The creatures themselves are hardly fantastic, but rather adequate CGI animals offering mostly enjoyable sequences (tho one at a zoo is sooo stupid), and allow the actors to have playful moments amidst the more threatening surroundings.
this lil dude cute as hell
On the No-Maj side of things is an impending election. Rowling wrote a rich, old, white character named Mr. Shaw who owns a tower, controls the media, and has a son whose political slogan is “America’s future,” but speaks violently of fear. Jon Voight—an outspoken Trump supporter—plays Shaw, which is such a stealthy own that I’m certain Rowling is still laughing. It’s more of a cameo, but without spoiling it I’ll say it’s suggested that media incited xenophobia is on the way.
Another muggle subplot, loosely connected to the Shaw’s, follows Mary Barebone (an intimidating Samantha Morton), an anti-magic evangelical who leads a group called the Second Salemers, and takes children from magical families that she’s exposed. Her adopted son, Credence (Ezra Miller), a closeted wizard (guess the subtext), has secret meetings with the nefarious Percival Graves.
“NO WITCHCRAFT IN AMERICA. WE NEED A SECOND SALEM”
The character detail of the Potter films is missed; only Tina’s backstory is seen during a MACUSA conversion therapy like punishment where witches and wizards get their magic forced out of them (again, guess the subtext). In the first act, plot setup and exposition bogs down the motivations of the characters and things just happen because, well, the screenplay says so. Even with all this hurried plotting and exposition there’s a sense that the character’s backstories are already thought up, but just not ready to be revealed. Rowling’s rich world building/sense of history is the film’s connective tissue and greatest strength.
If this sounds like a confusing plot with subtext overload, well, maybe a tad, but the regular joe escapist viewer will latch on to the film’s surface pleasures and follow the story clearly. Kids seemed to enjoy the light silliness of Newt and Jacob catching the beasts. The comedic relief worked like clockwork in my theater thanks to Dan Fogler’s performance as Jacob, the rare goofy sidekick who never slips into stupidity and actually has more at stake than the hero. His romance with Tina’s sister, the mind reading Queenie (Alison Sudol), is quite charming.
The childlike wonder of the Potter films is mostly devoid here. There’s no learning spells, tween problems or adventure. The tone remains energetic and light, but more in the magic vein of a Doctor Who episode. Carrying over from the Potter films is an inkling of mysterious history that’s driving the characters—almost like a connective force. In those films it was the slowly unearthed mystery of Voldemort, while here it’s a convoluted mystery surrounding a generic smoke monster (really?) and the evil wizard, Gellert Grindelwald (the film’s most disappointing element). Obvious downgrades, but hopefully they’ll send the sequels down a different path than the Potter films.
Rowling has multiple plates spinning, each different and semi entertaining with speed bumps in pace. Her world-building is her greatest strength and works better in the confined space of Hogwarts because it doubles as exposition. It, uh, doesn’t quite work like that here.
The subplots frustratingly lack narrative and tonal cohesion, but luckily their subtext has connection. The parallel plots escalate their political turmoil into a singular climax that involves both the muggle and magical world. Because the film takes place over 48 hours with loads of plot to lay down and little time for backstory, the stakes feel significantly lower than the Potter films. This leaves the convoluted finale as by far the film’s weakest and silliest section, but working like a pilot episode of a TV series, the film ends at a point that suggests the sequels could be as interesting, if not more so, than the early Potter films. Without the limits of Hogwarts, the possibilities have a wider scope.
Fantastic Beasts finds itself in a position where it’s not really a kids film because it has adult characters dealing with impending radical ideas, but it still has to appeal to all ages. Yates buoyantly juggles plot and characters with Rowling’s heavier themes that were also present in the latter Potter films, but in this context feel like an urgent warning. The defining difference between Fantastic Beasts and the Potter films is that this is not Good vs Evil; it’s a modern reflection of our radical political climate. The villain here is fear and uncertainty.
The film benefits from the rush of nostalgia that the audience is bringing in, but on its own it’s a film that’s well acted with a world of history, dense politics and a timely message about outsiders standing together — hoping it will be okay. One wishes its narrative was more streamlined rather than a mishmash of subplots that only exist to set up future films. It’s a bummer that a film with such intriguing subtext doesn’t have a compelling story to match it, but the 1920s wizarding world and new characters are just enough to make it a worthwhile trip to the cinema over Thanksgiving weekend.
There will be farrrrrr better films to explore Trump’s America, but this is the first to be explicitly about the fears of minorities and the rise of global populism and nationalism. So, it’s worthwhile. Fantastic Beasts is messy, lacking wonder, and overloaded in plot, but it’s the most obviously relevant blockbuster of the year so far.
Grade: C+ Not as good as even the weakest Potter films, but I look forward to the next chapter because the good stuff here is refreshing, and Rowling has urgent stuff to say.