“Fantastic Beasts” recaptures wonder of Harry Potter, delivers topical message

Justin Jones

In the past weeks, articles from news outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, Time and Huffington Post drew comparisons between the “Harry Potter” films and modern politics. In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” J.K. Rowling once again effortlessly adapts political criticism to popular fantasy.

“Fantastic Beasts” is Rowling’s first screenplay, and directed by “Harry Potter”-veteran David Yates, who effortlessly recaptures the visuals of the wizarding world. The film is a wondrous, magical and sometimes dark prequel, but tells an entertaining story with few flaws. 

Episodic in nature, the film follows “Magizoologist” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward British wizard who arrives in America with a magical briefcase full of fantastical creatures. Predictably, many of them escape, so he tracks them down one by one with sidekicks Tina (Katherine Waterston), Queenie (Alison Sudol) and the excellent-yet-nonmagical Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler).

The sequences of creature-hunting are great fun and a welcome return to the lighthearted and enchanting tone of the first few “Harry Potter” films. Redmayne’s Scamander is a likable wizard who has a passion for his animals above all else, but Fogler’s Kowalski is the standout character of the film. He acts as a lens through which the audience learns of magic, but also brings much-needed laughs and heart to the movie.

These smaller-scale scenes are contrasted against grand, darker moments closer to the final installment of the “Potter” series. There is dark magic brewing in the American Wizarding World, and the President of Magic (Carmen Ejogo) sends the mysterious wizard-cop Graves (Colin Farrell) to investigate, though he may have ulterior motives.

Interweaving these tonally-unique stories was a brilliant move by Rowling, as it cuts the edge of the more sinister moments while giving a sense of urgency to what would have been an otherwise whimsical search for the titular fantastic beasts. Instead, as the two separate plots grow closer together, so do their tones, until an ultimately explosive third-act climax.

The relationships between wizards and non-wizards, or “no-maj’s” as they are called in the American Wizarding World, have always mirrored real-world racial tensions, and “Fantastic Beasts” brings it to the forefront. The tight script delivers timely messages of tolerance and the rejection of hate, some of which does not turn out as planned.

“Fantastic Beasts” is the first installment of a planned five-film series, and though it does not feel incomplete, it does seem as though it’s a part of something greater. The political messages of this film only begin to come together later in the story, but it is probable that the next installments will actually center around them. 

The film’s greatest problems lie in its third act. Instead of continuing to tell an innovative story, it begins to cave to modern blockbuster conventions. Without spoiling anything, the “Fantastic Beasts” ending features predictable moments of large-scale destruction and an unnecessarily goofy plot twist. The “Potter” films consistently concluded on climactic battles with large emotional stakes, but not always on such a grand level.

Rowling’s world-building skills are obviously accomplished, and she shows them off in “Fastastic Beasts.” As with “Harry Potter,” the script hints at a story taking place outside of the narrative. Depending on the viewer’s knowledge of the Wizarding World, one could perceive “Fantastic Beasts” as a fun movie about sorcery or the prologue to a grander chapter in the history of magic. 

After nine years away from the wizarding world, J.K. Rowling delivered two successful returns in a single year with “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”