When J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book published in 1997, the main character was a 10-year-old, and his adventures were appropriate to kids at the same age: he went off to magical school for wizards, made friends, survived bullying, played sports, broke some rules, learned some secrets, and ultimately discovered that his mom’s love had him protected from the scariest things in the world.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had its dark and scary elements, but it was initially a book about and for children. But over the next 10 years and the next six novels, Harry Potter and his friends developed, along with the series fans who first attached to Rowling’s work in grade school. Characters awkwardly handled through teenage romances.
Friendships shaped and destroyed. Physical and emotional torture and outright murder became important elements of the series. And as Harry went through an angry, troublesome adolescence, the story’s stakes kept rising around him.
The new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first full-length Harry Potter story that leaves behind childhood tales and teen angst, and specifically deals with adult characters living in an adult world. And there has to be some interest in that for longtime fans: theoretically, it’s a sign that the series has continued to grow older with them.
With the original Harry Potter series, Rowling brought a large and improved setting, but then had to mix it all around the narrative needs of one Chosen One stereotype. Harry’s battle against the wicked wizard Voldemort influenced their entire magical world, but placing a teenage magic-school dropout at the forefront of a grand and complicated battlefield often meant reducing the Potterverse to one hero, his peers, and a useless backdrop of frightened innocents and fumbling, impotent bureaucrats.
The effort to keep Rowling’s world Harry-sized kept forcing it seem smaller and darker than it should be. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which takes place decades earlier and places the action from Britain to New York, should be the series’ opportunity to overcome of Harry’s shadow.
And to some extent, it does. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a cluttered film, for multiple reasons, one is the wearying effort, so common to nowadays franchise movies, to build a huge ongoing narrative at the expense of the current one. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is designed as the first of a five-film franchise, and it’s easy to see all the loose threads being thrown out for following films to pick up. But the movie, written by Rowling and directed by David Yates, often seems like it’s overcrowded because Rowling is celebrating the freedom to increase her setting past the borders of Harry Potter’s experience and his story needs.
Eddie Redmayne played Newt Scamander, a shy, clumsy, potentially on-the-spectrum Brit visiting 1926 New York City on a mission relating with his fascination for magical animals. Newt wants to leave his magical suitcase full of CGI creatures in peace, but a chance facing with non-magical wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and anti-magic fan Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) released some of his charges free, and he has to recapture them all (pokémon-ish).
His magical quest is quite fun and predictable, mostly an excuse for comic bungling and chase scenes. But it’s a relatively side element in the story, which also involves dishonored magical investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her mind-reading younger sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a sketchy magical enforcer (Colin Farrell), and a non-magical politician and his family, who would be unimportant if one of them wasn’t portrayed by Jon Voight.
Plus, Mary Lou Barebone’s horribly abused orphan horde (including We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller, in a hideously embarrassing haircut) and another weak, impotent bureaucracy (Carmen Ejogo), and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them begins to feel exactly like its source material: more an encyclopedia of story details than an actual story.
And not all of those story elements conceptually or tonally match together. This is a movie that bases equally on ferocious beatings of affection-starved children, and a sort of nice, gold-hungry magical platypus named Niffler that wants to stuff all the world’s valuables into its bottomless stomach. The film features a peculiarly horrified and personal form of execution, and also Redmayne honking, rolling around, and wiggling his butt at the camera in a mating dance with the purpose of luring in an escaped glowing rhino-beast.
It’s not just a serious adventure with comic elements, or likewise: it’s a grab bag of world-building wonder and awkward weird humor, with violence and childish wooziness tossed around in same measure. It reads as though Rowling’s version of an adult world is yet relied on the patronage of kids. Meaning, it’s a typical blockbuster movie, trying to attract adults and children at the same time, and not fully serving either audience.
But the criticism Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has been getting doesn’t praise it enough for the way it resets the Potterverse’s expectations, going back the darkness and creating a new normal that leaves time for the things that were always interesting and exciting about this world. The film’s CGI menagerie appears a bit cheap and garish, but at its best, as with a golden, six-winged thunderbird that becomes the movie’s most outstanding element, or in a show-down speakeasy scene that seems like a lost sidebar from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film brings back the anything-can-happen dreamy element and the sense of scope and surprise that made the Harry Potter stories appealing.
And while Fantastic Beasts’ inconsistent leaps between creepy gravity and childish silliness are distracting, one thing is consistent: the characters here can be goofy, broad, naive, bungling, or just one-dimensional, but a surprising number of them are in pain. There’s a wide, performative type of melancholy throughout this movie, and it touches on so many of the characters. Newt just wants to be at peace and protect his beastly friends, and the world won’t leave him be, and while Redmayne’s performance is tic-ridden and goofy, it’s also appealingly disappointing.
Porpentina is consistently trying to do the right thing, even when she’s always being punished or overlooked for it. Jacob has been admitted into a world of mysteries he can’t participate in or even hold on to. Mary Lou knows there’s evil in the world, but she can’t catch the world’s attention. For all the film’s childish elements, it shows tons of suffering and injustice, and the feeling that schools are cold and oppressive, and only individual action counts.
These are ordinary, simple, black-and-white Rowling tropes, pretty much like the awkward bureaucracy and the obsession with transformation. And the wish-fulfillment simplicity of these concepts appears destined to everlastingly leave the Potterverse in a strange twilight between adolescence and maturity, between an acknowledgment that the world is complicated, and a hope that it can be fixed with a little frenzied, despairing heroism.
For all that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ultimately allows the Potterverse to enter an adult world, it still hasn’t successfully come to grips with adult decision-making and hardships. But when it isn’t encouraging whimsy, merchandising potential, or slapstick, it was still very close to that goal. If nothing else, it’s interesting to know that there’s a Potter Universe outside Harry Potter himself. His world has always been enormous enough to support other stories. Finally, it has a chance to.