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.


“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”: a Flawed, Fantastic Return to the Wizarding World

***WARNING: This post does not #KeepTheSecrets. Spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child ahead.***

I’ve found a particular perspective absent in reviews of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

All critics are familiar with Harry’s story; some — even most — must be fans. But for phenomena such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, fans come in different degrees. Unlike the most prominent reviewers of Cursed Child thus far, I am a peak Harry Potter fanatic.

I’ve read every book from the original seven-volume series as well as the companion works, Quidditch Through the Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard. I have Hermione Granger’s robe and wand, which I’ve worn at least twice in the past year. I want to write children’s books because of Harry Potter. Not infrequently, I trace my decisions, opinions and values to lessons learned from Harry and his friends. I’ve already bought my ticket, four months early, to the film version of Fantastic Beasts. And I spent all my money and took a week off work to travel more than 3,700 miles to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child performed onstage in London, England.

So understand while reading this review that unlike most professional critics, I can’t just comment on the work itself. Watching and reading Cursed Child, I see most intently how this eighth story fits into Rowling’s Wizarding World.

In many ways, it’s a wonderful addition. Cursed Child begins where the epilogue to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the original series, left off: with Harry (Jamie Parker) and Ginny Potter’s (Poppy Miller) middle son, Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett), embarking for Hogwarts. Rose Granger-Weasley (Cherrelle Skeete) — daughter of one literature’s great couples, Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley) and Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni) — and Draco Malfoy’s (Alex Price) son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle), join him. From there, Cursed Child takes a turn anticipated for nine years by fanfiction writers across the world: Albus and Scorpius become best friends. They bond in part because of strained father-son relationships, as both Harry and Draco struggle to relate to their children, and remain close after both are Sorted into Slytherin House and become, in Scorpius’ words, “true and total losers.”

From there, the play unfolds, with new threats of Dark magic and even Voldemort’s resurgence. Cursed Child poses a particular problem for avid Potterheads: as much as we — or at least I — want to immerse ourselves back into the Wizarding World, it hurts to see our heroes face more hardship. When I first read Deathly Hallows, I cried when I read that “all was well.” Its simplicity, its peace filled me with joy. For the first time since he was a year and three months old, Harry Potter had a loving family, wonderful friends, no Dark wizards trying to kill him. His life, at last, was good.

Cursed Child’s existence necessitates the end of that goodness. A new play about Harry and his family wouldn’t exist with a point of tension, challenges to face. Here, a few arise, all difficult to watch. All I want for Harry is peace — so seeing his scar hurt froze my mouth into a grimace. All I want for Harry is love — so seeing him and Albus fight made me wince.

But, as I said, Cursed Child is wonderful. It wouldn’t be if Harry and his friends didn’t emerge safe and happy once more. As intended, Harry even grows from the struggles he faces, mainly his relationship with Albus. The other characters grow, too — Albus and Scorpius, this play’s protagonists, in particular.

Albus and Scorpius provide a touching, lonely, adolescent core to this story. Their relationship is the best part of Cursed Child. (Although, as a Rose/Scorpius shipper of nine years and counting, I was thrilled by Scorpius’ crush on her.) Albus’ veiled sensitivity, dry humor and boldness mesh well with Scorpius’ awkward, nerdy humor. Scorpius proved my favorite character in the play. Together, he and Albus form an unlikely pair that makes perfect sense, especially as played by Boyle and Clemmett.

In general, Cursed Child is strongest when it explores relationships: Albus and Scorpius’, Albus and Harry’s, and Scorpius and Draco’s are most prominent. In these emotional scenes, Rowling’s unique touch emerged. Although her writing improved during her original seven books, Rowling, who helped create but did not write this play, has always had an extraordinary gift at showing humanity. The emotional core of her series lies in its characters, who she makes so familiar, and how they interact with one another and their world. I loved Harry Potter, as a fragile six-year-old, because I saw my insecurities in Ron; I felt like an outcast, like Harry; and as a bossy, dark- and bushy-haired, brainiac girl with brown eyes and large front teeth, I was Hermione. Potterheads love Rowling’s series as much for her characters as for her world, and sure enough, I loved Cursed Child’s new faces.

But in reflecting old characters, the play had one major flaw. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany did immense disservice to Ron Weasley. Yes, in the Potter series, Ron fulfills the funny sidekick role, providing monkey barrels of comic relief. But he has always been more than that. He was a boy immensely relatable to readers, riddled by insecurities and self-imposed pressure. He’s not Hermione, but he’s smart in his own right, providing knowledge of the Wizarding World and common sense. Most of all, he’s a fiercely loyal and brave friend. During the chess tournament in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ron was willing to sacrifice his life for Harry and Hermione — at just 11 years old.

That full, complicated character is more than a sidekick.

Yet Cursed Child continued the Harry Potter films’ process of reducing Ron to that one guy who makes the audience laugh. Ron served no purpose in the play except to crack jokes and make goo-goo eyes at Hermione. He should have been given more to do. Why did Harry not ask his best friend how to communicate with his son? Why did no one consult Ron, a brilliant chess player, for strategic ideas about how to take down the play’s villain? Why was Ron drawn as less perceptive and helpful than in Deathly Hallows, undoing seven books of earned character growth? I love Ron’s jokes, and he and Hermione are my favorite couple, but I reject Cursed Child’s version of Ron. Owning Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, instead of being Head of Magical Law Enforcement like Harry or Minister of Magic like Hermione, should not make him less important.

Cursed Child’s other character flaws were less striking, but more important to the play’s plot. In short: it turns out that Voldemort had a daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange who calls herself Delphi Diggory, Amos’ supposed niece, and the Augery (Esther Smith). She tries to reverse her father’s defeat by convincing Albus and Scorpius to go back in time and stop Voldemort from killing Cedric Diggory in the Triwizard Tournament.

Using the last remaining Time Turner, Albus and Scorpius indeed try to save Cedric, creating alternate realities as a result. By humiliating Cedric during the second Task, the boys make him as much of a loser as they are. Cedric grows so resentful of his unpopularity that he becomes a Death Eater and kills Neville Longbottom in the Battle of Hogwarts. This murder, which prevents Neville from destroying Voldemort’s last Horcrux, Nagini, lets Voldemort kill Harry and establish his fascist, Muggle-killing dictatorship.

A lot more happens in the five-plus hours of Cursed Child — in fact, that alternate reality only emerges at the end of Act Two. Eventually, Albus and Scorpius and their families defeat the Augery and save the Wizarding World. But the plot is riddled with holes, two of them being the revelations about Cedric and Voldemort.

Cedric Diggory was honest and fair-minded, saving Harry during the Third Task of the Triwizard Tournament and, in Prisoner of Azkaban, trying to arrange a Quidditch rematch when his team won because Harry fell off his broom. He was, as Albus Dumbledore put it, “good, and kind, and brave.” Claiming Cedric Diggory could become a Death Eater insults his rightly lauded memory. A young man as good as him does not start advocating genocide because he’s become unpopular. That insinuation badly revises his character: it makes his sacrifice less significant, and his early death less tragic. Although Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany make it a point to honor Cedric’s memory, they dishonor his personhood by presenting such a twisted version of who he could have become. Their version does not fit with the Cedric readers know, nor with the son whom Amos Diggory still mourns and loves.

In addition — and all you fanfiction writers who long ago predicted Voldemort’s child, skip this part — claiming Voldemort and Bellatrix would have a child together stretches belief. Of course, Bellatrix would be willing to carry Voldemort’s child: she’d give her life for the opportunity. But I find it hard to believe Voldemort would ask her to carry one. It’s not that he would reject the idea of progeny — in fact, I find the logic of him having a child entirely believable. A man obsessed with immortality would embrace any chance to continue his bloodline, and a man who did not comprehend love would not consider a child a weakness.

However, during his months at Malfoy Manor, Voldemort would not have considered procreation necessary. One of Voldemort’s biggest faults was pride, which led him to underestimate his opponents and draw incorrect conclusions. He knew Harry sought to destroy his Horcruxes, but did not think he could find them all. He knew Severus Snape loved Lily Potter, but did not consider him capable of being a spy. He placed so much stock in the dichotomy of life and death, he did not understand why the Elder Wand would not work for him. Only at the very end of the Battle of Hogwarts — possibly only when his own Killing Curse rebounded towards him — did Voldemort understand that he had lost. Up until then, because of his pride, he had little doubt he would win: he would not have taken the extreme caution of creating an heir. Besides, even if he had greater doubts, an heir wouldn’t have served his purpose. Voldemort didn’t just want to create a pureblood world; he wanted to rule that world. He didn’t want his spawn to do it.

The main fault of Cursed Child, then, is that its plot’s central premise doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit into the Potter series’ existing puzzle, and like most plots, it gains more jagged edges along the way.

How, then, can Cursed Child still be wonderful, with a mess of a plot and a gross disservice to a main, beloved character? To start off, even with fuzzy logic, Cursed Child is fantastically entertaining. The staged version, in particular, is stunning. The actors all play their parts well, particularly the younger ones, and the transitions and effects are nothing short of magical. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Hogwarts degrees on many of the crew members’ walls.

What’s more, there’s a reason I spent so much time discussing characters: they leave the biggest impression. When I left the Palace Theatre, I didn’t spend too much time mulling the plot. Rather, I thought about Scorpius’ endearing silliness; how much Rose takes after her mother; and the ways Albus, during the play, had grown. Yet again, Rowling’s characters are as important as her plot, if not more important. For this tried and true Potterhead, despite the play’s faults, those characters made Cursed Child spectacular.

Other Thoughts:

  • After that ridiculous hullabaloo about Ron and Hermione being a poor match a few years ago, which I won’t link to because it’s disgusting, I’m glad Rowling and Thorne re-emphasized Ron and Hermione’s relationship in Cursed Child. In every alternative reality, Ron and Hermione were in love. In actual reality, they decide to renew their marriage vows. Ron and Hermione are my OTP — One True Pairing, for fanfiction novices — and I was thrilled to see them enjoying a healthy, loving relationship.
  • I’m equally happy Hermione is Minister of Magic. Boy, does she deserve it. And I like Rowling breaking gender roles, with Ron as the primary caretaker because of Hermione’s work. (And, later, with Harry cooking instead of Ginny.)
  • There’s another possible character flaw, which I didn’t include in my main review because I haven’t decided what I think yet. In the alternative reality where Voldemort triumphed, Severus Snape is still alive — and is secretly an active member, with Ron and Hermione, of Dumbledore’s Army. After failing to save Lily’s son, he says, he committed to her cause and even came to believe in it himself. Severus Snape is undoubtedly a hero in the Harry Potter series, and deserves his commendation and namesake. However, I’m not convinced he would continue risking his life for Lily after Harry’s death. Maybe I’m just not used to open bravery from Severus Snape, let alone him being chummy with Ron and Hermione, but his character in Cursed Child seemed discordant to me. Like I said, though, I haven’t decided what I think.
  • I can’t imagine Voldemort having sex, no matter the purpose. If he did have a child with Bellatrix Lestrange, I imagine there must be a spell or potion for something like artificial insemination.
  • Cursed Child did an excellent job expanding Ginny’s character and showing her relationship with Harry as his wife. She comes across every bit as strong, brave, witty and determined as she wasn’t in the movies.
  • The play also does good, necessary work redeeming Slytherin House’s image. Albus and Scorpius both clearly belong in their House, and are equally obviously not evil. Cursed Child goes a long way towards fixing the fandom’s understandable but inaccurate anti-Slytherin bias.
  • Cursed Child‘s plot hinges upon a Time Turner used incorrectly. In Rowling’s original seven books, she states outright that Time Turners can’t be used to go more than a few hours into the past. In Cursed Child, the Time Turner takes them back decades.
  • How, exactly, did Albus and Scorpius take and then return Harry’s baby blanket, when Lily Potter, a superb witch, was guarding her son’s life from anyone beyond her closest friends?
  • It turns out that Harry Potter is afraid of pigeons. Join the club, Harry. They’re dirty, creepy and poop on people’s heads.
  • This seems like a good opportunity to remind everyone to read the Harry Potter books. They are better than the movies in every way, and if you want to read Cursed Child, it won’t be as good without the books as background: the movies don’t suffice. Additionally, if you’ve only watched the movies, please don’t judge Harry Potter based on them. Read the books. They’re one of our world’s great lights.