Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Izzy Smith gives four and a half stars to the spin-off of a well-loved classic

Photo: Vimeo

Spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them follow:

As someone who grew up with Harry Potter, I went to the midnight showing of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them hugely excited, although with no small degree of trepidation and protectiveness over this huge part of my childhood. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

One of Fantastic Beasts’ main strengths is that it evokes just the right amount of nostalgia without relying on it. It has a wonderful new soundtrack, which at times it becomes evocative of that of the Harry Potter films. We are rooted in Harry’s world through a protagonist who wrote his school textbook, and shown familiar creatures like nifflers, but taken back in time and offered the completely different world of 1920s New York.

We are given new heroes, but an old villain is revisited in Grindelwald, originally a minor character but one who links us back to Dumbledore and the familiar magical world. The ties to the familiar are grounding and fun, but the film avoids hanging off a selection of references, and is welcoming to new viewers.

In many ways, Fantastic Beasts seems to work better as a film than the Harry Potter series; the fact that this was its original medium is clear. Although in some ways the original adaptations do a wonderful job, and a visual medium is effective and exhilarating for spectacles like Quidditch, the process of compression and conversion to film can be frustrating, and often constitutes a real loss. Rowling’s excellently intricate plots and complex humanisation of a wide range of characters do not always come across well in brutally cropped films but, in Fantastic Beasts, the small number of central characters allows us to become truly invested in them, and the plot is tight enough for the time-frame of the film.

The visual medium is fully exploited, with stunning CGI made powerfully emotive in explaining the protagonist Newt Scamander’s passion for the conservation of magical creatures. The beautiful effects that create the beasts and their habitat never feel like a cheap firework display, but are an intrinsic and moving part of the story.

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Easily the most compelling character is affable no-maj (muggle) Jacob Kowalsi, who gets involved in the action purely by chance, and in all honesty the subplot involving his desire for a bakery was the most absorbing thread of the story. Newt, although endearingly Hagrid-like in his love of magical creatures, may come across as too much of an English stereotype at times to be truly three-dimensional: awkward, shy and somewhat emotionally repressed. However, Jacob’s steady friendliness and unapologetic emotional investment in his culinary dreams are engaging and charming, while his mix of confusion and wonder at the magical world helps engage the audience in a funny and relatable way.

Perhaps most interestingly, Fantastic Beasts offers powerful commentary on the dangers of othering, persecution and division. This is certainly pertinent for us 21st century muggles, especially given the rise of racist hate crimes in the wake of Brexit and the election of Trump, as well as the ongoing struggles of the LGBT community. Fear of the ‘other’ on the side of the no-maj (muggles) has bred a viciousness that has driven the magical world underground, and we see a wizarding community who are isolated and live in fear of discovery. A sweet and light-hearted romance between a witch and a no-maj helps demonstrate the effect of this segregation and division, jarring against the atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear. We also see how persecution breeds radicalisation: much like X-Men’s Magneto, Grindelwald is a villain we disagree with but can understand. His grievances are real, even though his solutions are brutal.

Simultaneously we see the majority of magical people living peacefully, and yet still facing prejudice—a potential comment on the irrationality of prejudices like Islamophobia. Perhaps most powerfully, Rowling uses magic to form a powerful analogy about the destructive impact of self-loathing and repression on a child who is vilified by a parent figure—a particularly common problem for LGBT youth. While the film can be read as an allegory for all forms of persecution and oppression, the tale of the Obscurus (the abused child) seems to apply particularly closely to LGBTQ+ issues, and could be read as an argument against parental rejection and attempts to change children, and specifically conversion therapy.

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Fantastic Beasts is a fun, moving and beautiful film, accessible to newcomers and particularly exciting for old Harry Potter fans. It is visually stunning, with engaging characters, and raises pertinent issues of prejudice and othering—and if none of these things draw you in, then please go and watch it just for the bakery subplot.