Nostalgia is a wicked thing. When used resourcefully, it can be a great catalyst for strength and hope during difficult moments. Conversely, it can have quite a negative impact when used tokenistically, fuelling romanticism for the ‘good old days’. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling has once again decided to take us back into the magical universe of Harry Potter, albeit with a change of setting to New York in the Roaring Twenties. This is a tricky endeavour. Yes, Rowling does have the overwhelming nostalgic power of the Potterverse to draw from, and on the surface it seems like a franchise tailor-made to succeed, but that’s precisely where the dangers lie. It’s a balancing act: to engage the affections of a generation of young adults who have practically grown up with the broad strokes morality of Harry Potter in a new story, context and cast, but do so without completely altering what they know from the prior instalments. With Deathly Hallows director David Yates at the helm, despite a few hiccups, the film succeeds.
When ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ plays against the Warner Brothers logo, you are back in a universe that feels more familiar to you than your own backyard. The story is set long before Harry ever set foot in Hogwarts, though the parallels between this setting and his are obvious. The magical and non-magical worlds seemingly co-exist, but without the latter knowing of the former’s existence. In the non-magical world, conspiracy theories are on the rise about the reality and supposed dangers of wizards and witches. The magical world has its own problems trying to contain the rise of a Dark Lord by the name of Gellert Grindelwald, who wants the wizarding world to come out of hiding and establish its dominance. In this fractured socio-political climate, an introverted zoologist of magical creatures, or ‘magizoologist’, called Newt Scamandar (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York City carrying a suitcase full of magical creatures. Through an unfortunate mishap that sets them all loose, he meets and befriends Muggle, or ‘No-Maj’ as they’re known in America, named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Together, with the help of demoted Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), they set out to retrieve all the creatures that have escaped and prevent rising tensions from reaching a crisis point.
The kind of us-versus-them binary works quite effectively as a motif throughout the film. While most people in the film seem to be afraid of the creatures that have been let loose, Scamandar is more concerned for their well-being as they find themselves in an alien environment for the first time. While Scamandar and company are out recapturing them, Rowling employs the moral motif on a larger scale—Queenie admits upon first encountering the ‘No-Maj’ Jacob that the two aren’t allowed to interact. This is exactly the kind of segregation and fear that Dark Lords like Grindelwald (and later, Voldemort) prey upon to consolidate their rise. Grindelwald gathers support and builds his army because he believes in the superiority of pure magic and wants witches and wizards to have their ‘rightful place’ in the world. The parallels between the film’s imagined rise of a populist leader and real-world counterparts may be unintentional, though still extremely unsettling.
The film at times favours its moralism too much over the magical realism and fantasy that makes the Potter-verse appealing. Each and every encounter with one of Scamander’s creatures, be it the adorable Niffler or the highly sensitive Bowtruckle, is truly memorable, and I dearly hoped we could have spent more time with them. The simple comical beats of the Niffler trying to look innocent while blatantly stealing expensive objects, and the emotional connection that Scamander has with his Bowtruckle work as a nice foil to the heavy moralism of the broader narrative. Hence, Fantastic Beasts has the emotional core and expansive world to be continued on as a series.
Yates, who has agreed to stay on to direct upcoming films in this new series, astutely guides the audience through a screenplay where a lot of narrative threads play off each other. He is in complete control when deftly switching to-and-fro between the darker undertones of the screenplay and the lighter comic relief provided by magical realism. He intersperses the heavy handed quality of Rowling’s screenplay with punctuated and timely introductions of the various beasts, providing enough emotional variation where possible to keep the viewer engaged. There’s only so much he can do, though —Rowling is also interested in setting up plot threads that will be explored in future films of the series but have no bearing on the current film and hence, stand extraneously as odd placeholders in the narrative. The narrative disjointedness could have been saved on the editing table, but editor Mark Day appears reluctant to trim the excess moralising and as a consequence, the film drags before reaching an unsatisfactory climax.
By casting a shy, somewhat awkward and introverted character as the lead protagonist, Rowling intends to maintain the template of her previous stories: an unlikely character finds his inner heroism when forcibly thrust into a leadership role. In that way, both Harry and Newt are not that different. Redmayne’s portrayal, however, is somewhat irksome—he seems to be stuck in Stephen Hawking mode from The Theory of Everything—and as brilliant as Waterston is, she is wasted as Porpentina Goldstein, since her sole purpose for much of the narrative is to keep our ‘quirky’ hero Newt in check.
Colin Farrell redeems the acting department to a degree by his understated but intimidating portrayal of Auror Percival Graves, but Ezra Miller takes away the goodwill by his decidedly one-note performance as Credence Barebone. It is cringeworthy to see Miller and Farrell’s scenes together, with Farrell suitably underplaying his character while Miller is playing up his ‘repressed’ act to the galleries. Interestingly, it is Fogler who comes away with the top honours in the cast. While starting out as a bumbling idiot and mere comic relief, Fogler shows that his character has a strong sense of loyalty, street smartness, sensitivity and tolerance that wasn’t initially evident. Similarly, Alison Sudol in her portrayal as Queenie is also able to bring out a layered complexity to her character—the self-awareness that most people only see her as an object of desire and not much else—that isn’t immediately obvious.
In Fantastic Beasts, Rowling is playing to her strengths, and while this film might not have the instantly disarming quality of the Harry Potter franchise, there are enough broader arcs set in motion for a series to stand on its own feet. The over-emphasis on moralising does obscure the delight of magic at times, but on the occasions when the film gets the balance just right, you give in to your nostalgia and fall in love with Rowling’s world all over again.