Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

[Note:  There be spoilers below.]

As someone who is familiar with and a pretty serious fan of the Harry Potter universe [1], I looked forward to this film.  Before going to this film after getting off of work early because all of my time on Friday was on #TeamOT, I tried to watch some spoiler-free reviews on YouTube and did some reading and found the reviews to be mostly positive, but with some cautions.  One of the reviews I found to be most helpful said that if one liked Turner Classic Movies as well as holiday films that one would likely appreciate this movie, and I would like to cautiously add that while thankfully this film is not particularly Christmas-based, it does have a strong sentimental touch and I can agree that unless one has an interest in tales that pull at the heartstrings, this film will likely leave one a bit cold.  To really appreciate this film you need to care about the magical world, and the more you go into this film caring about matters of social injustice (more on that later) as well as the well-mannered nobility of Hufflepuffs like our hero Newt Scamander (more on that later as well), the more you will enjoy this film.

There are many points of attack into a movie like this, which has a lot going on.  The more familiarity you have with the Harry Potter universe, the easier this will go.  For example, while the main plot of the story is fairly simple, in that New Scamander, a somewhat lonely and mildly socially awkward hero has a mishap with a no-maj (American for Muggle) who ends up releasing his beasts into 1920s New York, and has to recover his beasts while evading the long arm of the American aurors who want to put him to death.  He meets up with a shy and lonely Jewish-American witch and her mind-reading sister, and the four of them serve as an effective pair of couples.  I was impressed with the acting in the film, as Eddie Redmayne makes for a suitably adorkable Newt Scamander, Katherine Waterston makes for a lovely and somewhat harried low-level functionary at the wand permit office who makes a serious blunder and who quickly realizes Newt’s honor and decency, Alison Sudhol (of One Cell In The Sea fame) channels her inner Marilyn Monroe as Tina’s mind-reading sister, and Dan Fogler plays a suitably surprised and amazed no-maj named Kowalski who represents the ambitions of Eastern European-Americans seeking to prove their loyalty and rise above menial labor.  The supporting acting, especially by Colin Farrell, is strong as well.  Towards the end of the film I thought to myself that I had heard Johnny Depp was supposed to be in the film and had not seen him yet, and once I did, something from earlier in the movie made a lot more sense, where Farrell’s character had shown an undue interest in Professor Dumbledore’s fondness for Newt Scamander, which seemed to make Farrell’s character a bit jealous.  Once the dramatic reveal took place, my thoughts were along the lines of, “Oh, snap!  Now I understand!”

One of the aspects of this film that hit me the closest to home was how it portrayed its Hufflepuff hero.  Although I thought it fairly obvious that I would be sorted into Ravenclaw, much to my surprise, my honest answers in Pottermore twice led me to be sorted into Hufflepuff, and seeing this film put that into focus.  Ravenclaws are associated with wit and intellect, both of which I possess a fair amount of, but Hufflepuffs are associated with a strong sense of fair play, a certain dogged determination and refusal to give up on one’s quests, and a certain native sense of honor and decency which is often mistaken for being gullible and foolish.  In looking at Newt’s awkward romance with Tina, his blunt honesty about his own life as an outsider and his ability to make friends with a no-maj, and his willingness to suffer on behalf of a misunderstood and mistreated young man, I saw a fair amount of myself, and Newt, it should be admitted, was no idiot, but rather a person of considerable intellect but even more obvious kindness and gentleness in his ways towards other people as well as his beloved beasts.  I could see myself as a Hufflepuff not too much unlike Newt, which made this movie all the more easy for me to relate to.  It also made it a far more poignant film as well.

This film was clearly made with contemporary politics in mind, likely with the assumption that America would be celebrating the defeat of the threat of home-grown populism and the election of our first female president, neither of which happened in election season.  The film itself features characters with a fair amount of gray–even Grendelwald himself strikes a sympathetic note in making an impassioned appeal for ceasing to live in the shadows and in fear, and the atmosphere of the film is rich with fears.  Newt’s fondness for magical beasts appears to be related to his own social awkwardness and fears about being lonely and excluded and nearly friendless.  Tina is afraid about growing up as an old maid, and her sister Queenie fears that she will never find a man who treats her with decency and isn’t attracted to her only for her strikingly good looks.  And the larger society around is no less afraid.  A New Salem organizing arises seeking to inflame Muggles with fear over supposed witches in their midst, while wizards are afraid at being targeted and exposed.  And so it goes, much like in our own world where there are fears about foreigners and social divisions and threat to safety and security and one’s hopes for relationships and personal improvement.  The film is rich and sweet, even if I disagree with at least some of its worldview, and it seems likely that the remaining four films of this series will explore the drama and dangers of the time between the late 1920s and the end of World War II told from the perspective of the magical world, and judging from this film, that could be a very compelling journey, and one with all kinds of relevance for our contemporary world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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