Long before there was Harry Potter, there was a different young wizard – an awkward and sheepish “magizoologist” who is more at ease with furry and winged creatures than people. Say hello to your unlikely new hero, Newt Scamander.
To echo Erin Whitney, how do you make a successful “Harry Potter” prequel without the wizard himself? J.K. Rowling’s new spinoff, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, captures a dark time in global history e.g. the coming Depression, the age of Fascism. There’s something gloomy and scary lurking nearly around every corner. Still, we’re shown that there’s delight in Rowling’s world, and it comes in ample doses.
The year is 1926 where Newt Scamander arrives in New York City, mostly clueless about the ways of local witches and wizards. What makes Scamander’s situation even more alarming is the fact that he’s carrying a suitcase full of banned magical critters.
These magical beasts are illegal to possess in America for good reason – they’re unpredictable, mischievous, sometimes even life threatening. Yet Scamander reminds us of big ol’ Hagrid, who has the tendency to see the beauty in these creatures. It doesn’t take long before one of those creatures escape and havoc soon ensues.
While chasing down the Niffler inside a bank, Scamander meets Jacob Kowalski, a chubby human (or No-Maj as they call muggles in the US) who gets suck into the world of magic. Due to his unabashed wizardish attitude, Scamander catches Tina Goldstein’s attention, who is an American witch working for MACUSA (the US version of the Ministry of Magic).
Together with Tina’s younger sister, Queenie, the quartet find themselves racing against time when Scamander is held responsible for a presumably invincible monster causing destruction in the streets of the city. But Scamander may be their only hope in facing the deadly threat.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is most enjoyable when the spotlight is on the actual fantastic beasts. Audiences will finally get to see what’s really inside Scamander’s magical suitcase. This particular scene was easily one of the most memorable takeaways from the film.
Each creature here has personality to spare and it’s easy to be charmed by most of them, as the magizoologist clearly has. As Eric Kohn points out, these creations come equipped with Rowling’s usual inventive language, from the Nundu (a reptilian lion) to the hulking, rhino-like Erumpent and the majestic avian Thunderbird. But no beast steals the show more than Niffler, who can’t seem to quit stealing shiny items.
One of the other highlights viewers will get to experience is seeing this new discovery through the eyes of Jacob Kowalski. As an outsider, we share his wonder at all of Scamander’s magical creatures. He doesn’t look at these strange beasts with loathing and fear; he may be shocked but he isn’t disgusted.
It helps that he also provides the movie with a much needed comic relief with his sense of enthusiasm and endearing attitude. Such is the case when he falls head over heels for Queenie Goldstein. Although the witch can read whatever he’s thinking, he’s totally into her. Their chemistry is believable and we’re totally shipping this couple!
Meanwhile, we see troubled young man Credence being goaded by head auror Percival Graves to track down a young wizard who may be responsible for unleashing a dark magical force upon the city. We don’t really see the full nature of their relationship until towards the end of the film.
The movie also makes it a point to highlight that there is a looming threat of the Dark Wizard that suggests that the franchise will explore the origin story of Gellert Grindelwald. Even though we’re excited at the prospect of getting to know Grindelwald’s relationship with a young Dumbledore, we can’t help but wonder if “Fantastic Beasts” is about Scamander and his beasts, or a decoy for the franchise to progress into Grindelwald’s backstory.
Another drawback is the fact that “Fantastic Beasts” lacks a strong central protagonist like Harry Potter. Scamander’s awkwardness, although done intentionally, is hard to warm up to. The wizard himself admits that people don’t really like him that much. It’s only when he’s interacting with the animals that he opens up and becomes likeable.
There’s nothing bad with Eddie Redmayne’s performance per se. It’s just that the movie tries to cover so much ground with subplot after subplot that Scamander gets the short end of the stick. Even so, his performance has more than earned our trust and we look forward to see more of Scamander in the future.
The magic in “Fantastic Beasts” is more grown up – that’s to be expected, given that the wizards here are not kids – but still playful and creative.
So is “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” the best movie in the “Harry Potter” franchise? Of course not. But if you’ve been a fan of the “Harry Potter” books and films, then revisiting this magical world is going to be a wonderful treat for sure 😉
Before you watch “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” in cinemas, get to know the wizard, witches, and No-Majs in our movie fun facts.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is currently out in Malaysian theatres.