In “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” an Exciting Return to the Wizarding World

Since the night of November 8, I’ve needed joy. Tonight, I found it, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling’s new addition to the Wizarding World.

Based off a Hogwarts textbook, which Rowling wrote in 2001 to raise money for charity, the film Fantastic Beasts is Rowling’s first foray into screenwriting. She delivers a smart, funny, exciting movie, directed well by David Yates, with a plot full of promise for fans of the books.

After a brief, confusing first scene, the weakest part of the movie, we meet our hero, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist and the author of the aforementioned Hogwarts textbook. Scamander disembarks a ship in 1926 New York, holding a briefcase full of magical creatures. From here on, the movie takes flight.

New York City is bustling and dark, and looks almost surprised when magic disrupts it. More bewitching, appropriately, is the world inside Scamander’s briefcase, with pockets of different habitats conjured to suit his beloved beasts. Richly colored and animated, innovative and entrancing, this world is as gorgeous as the creatures it shelters. Every beast, from the tiny, dependent Bowtruckle to the magnificent Thunderbird, is stunning — and more than a few could eat Donald Trump, a fun thought.

Of course, such wondrous creatures can’t be contained in a mere briefcase. Some of the beasts escape, which provides the main thrust of the movie. Along the way, Scamander meets Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ex-Auror for MACUSA, the Magical Congress of the United States; her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), a Legilimens, otherwise known as a witch who can read minds; and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj, the American word for a Muggle.

These four become a lovable quartet, cementing what I’ve found most distinctive about Rowling’s storytelling: her ability to craft characters so human, so real, I care about them as much as I do living people. The actors’ sterling performances help in this endeavor, led by Redmayne’s lithe, awkward, earnest Scamander, a hero all the more endearing for being a bit odd. Waterston plays Tina, who starts out wary of Newt but warms to him, as driven, brave and kind; she and Newt have promising potential. Sudol’s Queenie, meanwhile, is warm from the outset, beautiful and giggly, as charming as she is bright. Fogler rounds out the four with sharp comic timing as Kowalski, and is winningly astonished by most magic. Viewers can relate.

We meet less charming characters as well. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads the Second Salemers, who want to expose and exterminate witchcraft in the United States. She approaches Henry Shaw, Sr. (Jon Voight), a newspaper magnate, and his sons, prohibitionist senator Henry Junior (Josh Cowdery) and Langdon (Ronan Raftery), hoping to convince them that magic exists, too. Among Barebone’s adopted children is Credence (Ezra Miller), a trembling, rigid, shell of a person, one of the mysteries the film explores. Colin Farrell rounds out the count, playing the shrewd, powerful Percival Graves, the head of MACUSA’s Department of Magical Law Enforcement.

You may have noticed a theme among the main actors so far: they’re all white. The lone exception is Carmen Ejogo, who plays MACUSA president Serafina Picquery. I’m disappointed Rowling did so little to diversify her characters, particularly after the Potter novels’ criticism on that front. Still, I have hope: the end of the movie leaves room for new characters, who may be people of color. So, too, does it seem likely that sequels will include characters of different sexualities. In addition, Tina and Queenie’s last name suggests they are Jewish. If so, they are the second and third explicitly Jewish characters in the Wizarding World, and the first Jewish protagonists. (If they aren’t, I will personally throw a riot, because I have waited 14 years for this.)

Besides the film’s diversity oversight, however, it shows a keen awareness of modern political issues. Themes of xenophobia, authoritarianism and extremism course through the movie, setting the tone for conflicts to come.

I’m crossing my fingers, though, that even with those conflicts, the sequels maintain Fantastic Beasts’ delicate balance. It is warm and dark, witty and action-packed, engaging for the eyes and the mind in equal measure. Fantastic Beasts provided a potent antidote to my post-election sorrow, and is a welcome extension of my favorite world. 

And its twist at the end, like the movie itself, is typical Rowling brilliance.

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