SDG Reviews ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

J.K. Rowling brings fans back to the world of Harry Potter, but the results are less than enchanting.

(photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

I have nearly always found Harry Potter’s world an agreeable place to visit for a couple of hours at a stretch.

The strengths and weaknesses of the series waxed and waned from one film to the next. Harry, Ron and Hermione were sometimes more fun to be around than other times. The levels of magical eye candy varied. The parade of British thespians was usually worth watching. The drama and emotions worked in fits and starts.

On the whole, there was nearly always enough that worked to make the trip worthwhile. Only the penultimate film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1struck me as a waste of time, and the satisfactions of Part 2 made up for that.

I am entirely open to the prospect that there are stories worth telling in this world that have nothing to do with Harry Potter and Hogwarts, Dumbledore and Voldemort. Jumping back in time to the 1920s and across the pond to New York strikes me as an entirely reasonable course of action.

I am also pleased to note that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them offers the series’ first major non-magical or Muggle character — though it turns out that the word for “Muggle” among Yank wizards is the alarmingly leaden “No-Maj,” which perhaps gives you some idea how American slang sounds to British ears.

Are there any other good ideas in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? If there are, they’re few and far between.

The fact is, moving from the Harry Potter films to Fantastic Beasts feels a bit like moving from the original Star Wars trilogy to the Star Wars prequels.

Like the Star Wars prequels, Fantastic Beasts replaces the mythic hero’s journey and coming-of-age saga with a greater emphasis on political and social themes. As with The Phantom Menace in particular, mythology and world-building has swollen to the point of obscuring the bones of the drama to the point that it’s hard to say who the protagonist is.

More inspired by than adapted from J.K. Rowling’s faux-reference book of the same name, Fantastic Beasts was scripted by Rowling and directed by Harry Potter veteran David Yates. Eddie Redmayne stars as one Newt Scamander, an expert in “magizoology” and the ostensible author-to-be of the work in question. If you aren’t following this, you might as well stop reading now.

The story concerns Newt’s misadventures in New York, where a magical suitcase full of magical creatures (like the TARDIS in Doctor Who, the suitcase is bigger on the inside) that start running amok threatens to reveal the existence of the magical world to No-Majs (No-Majes? No-Maj’s? what an ugly word).

Newt’s woes attract the concerned eye of a magical secrecy officer named Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is thankfully usually called “Tina.” Newt and Tina become awkwardly entangled with the unmagical Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a heavyset New Yorker who works in a canning factory but dreams of opening a bakery.

The plot… well, where to start?

Samantha Morton plays a fanatical No-Maj named Mary Lou Barebone, leader of a group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society or “Second-Salemers” dedicated to proclaiming the existence of witches to No-Maji and exposing and destroying them.

They have apparently had some success, since Mary Lou runs an orphanage for children who appear to be the offspring of Majs. These include Credence (Ezra Miller), Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove) and Chastity (Jenn Murray).

Witchcraft not being a hanging offense in the 1920s, I’m unclear exactly how their parents died, but you can imagine that raising children of witches and wizards with anti-witch propaganda is going to lead to problems.

Which brings us to Obscurials: dark whirlwindy monsters from the id of young magical children trying to suppress their magicalness out of fear of No-Mej — a suppression so traumatic that such children don’t survive into adolescence.

As you can see, the frontier between the No-Maj-ority and the underground magical community is rather more fractious here than in the HP stories. As with mutants in the X-Men movies, there’s a Civil Rights-era difference of opinion between leaders in the minority community with peaceful visions, like Professor X and Martin Luther King Jr., and those with more violent visions, like Magneto and Malcolm X.

These include, in some order, Carmen Ejogo’s Seraphina Picquery, president of MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America, of course), and Colin Farrell’s Percival Graves, MACUSA director of magical security.

And I haven’t even mentioned Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), Tina’s mind reading flapper sister; Gnarlack, a goblin gangster and magical speakeasy owner played in some fashion by Ron Perlman; and Senator Henry Shaw, Jr., of the non-magical US Senate (Josh Cowdery), whose father is played by Jon Voight, who seems as uncertain about his presence in the film as I was. There’s also a cameo by Johnny Depp as a renegade wizard named Gellert Grindelwald who will apparently be an important character in later films.

It’s all too much and not enough: too much going on, not enough to care about. The goings-on are at turns whimsical but never wondrous, amusing but never affecting, violent but never harrowing. The most visionary HP films showed us things we had never seen before. Fantastic Beasts just made me wish I were watching Doctor Strange again.

The Second-Salemer anti-witchery is problematic for me. Although Rowling contrives to avoid explicitly religious language or imagery, Mary Lou’s milieu, including the allusions to Salem, witch burning, and the Puritan-style names Credence, Modesty and Chastity, obviously invoke historical Christian persecution of suspected witches.

That’s a dark stain in Christian history, to be sure — but I can’t enjoy HP-style fantasy magic in a world where real witches are wrongly persecuted by (even implicitly) Christian zealots. Invoking the Judeo-Christian proscription of magic and witchcraft in a story with morally permissible fantasy magic makes it hard to avoid implicating Christianity itself, not just Christian fanatics, as the problem.

The theme of children suppressing their magicalness and dying prematurely suggests, obviously, an allegorical link to another minority community living incognito with their own nightclubs and such in the early 20th century. A gay subtext has also been a recurring theme in the X-Men films, though human hostility to mutants was never given a religious or quasi-religious angle; it was always political and social, like any form of bigotry, inviting a range of applications.

I do appreciate that Rowling has always portrayed the wizard world as a community no less flawed than the No-Majjen, with their own moral blind spots and prejudices, from the enslavement of house elves to the general disdain for magical beasts in this film.

But Rowling’s world, by itself, isn’t enough to draw me in. I’m sure many diehard Harry-heads (or Majophiles of whatever they call themselves) will feel differently. For some I’m sure there’s something in the very air of the Potterverse that transports them whether or not the story and characters fully work. (That’s kind of how I feel watching a Miyazaki film, or almost any Studio Ghibli film, even the ones I don’t like.)

It doesn’t help that Fantastic Beasts offers levels of darkness and menace comparable to the later HP films — and that it does so (as David DiCerto notes in our latest episode of “Reel Faith”) without the theme of redemptive love present in the HP films from the beginning. Fantastic Beasts wants to be Harry Potter for grownups. I’m sure such a thing is possible, but after watching the film I still have no idea what it would look like.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Intense fantasy disaster sequences, menace and some violence; some cursing and other language; fantasy magic. Teens and up.