WASHINGTON - If you are a Harry Potter fan, you may be disappointed with the new Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Then again, you may be disappointed if you are not a Harry Potter fan.
There are pros and cons to the film: David Yates, a veteran Harry Potter filmmaker, recreates the magical world we came to love in the Harry Potter franchise, but without its iconic characters.
Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling penned the screenplay around the magical society of New York City, an ocean away from Hogwart’s School of Wizardry and long before the story of “the boy who lived” unfolded.
The new fantasy genre is only very thinly linked to the Harry Potter epic, so many fans may find it too foreign.
New York in 1926, with witches
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place in the Big Apple in 1926. An unseen force is terrorizing New Yorkers. Unable to explain the metaphysical phenomena, people are warning against witchcraft and calling for a witch-hunt.
Rowling says her goal was to showcase a different magical culture in America, where magical people hid their identity for fear of persecution.
The society appears much smaller and less intricate than the English magical society, and the laws governing their daily lives are far more restrictive than the ones in England. For example, American magical people can never intermarry with the non-maj, the equivalent of English muggles.
Newt Scamander, an English magical zoologist and the main character of the story, finds himself at the epicenter of the crisis. Scamander has recently arrived in New York City with a case full of endangered magical creatures that he plans to release into their natural habitats. Before he can do so, some of his creatures escape in the middle of the city during mysterious attacks against New Yorkers.
Looking for a scapegoat, The Magical Congress of the United States of America pins the attacks on Scamander’s creatures and arrests the zoologist.
Newt Scamander’s connection to Potter
Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, is no Harry Potter, but there is a link between the two characters. Newt Scamander was the famed author of a textbook Harry Potter used at school.
“While I was writing Potter I became quite interested in Newt Scamander,” Rowling said, “so I knew quite a lot about Newt. He’s been traveling the world studying magical creatures.”
She speaks of Scamander as if he were a character outside the realm of her creative imagination.
The author, however, has yet to see him really develop. So far, he is not as nuanced and complex as Harry Potter was. And that applies to the whole cast of the story. The new characters don’t carry the spark the previous ones did, making it difficult to believe that they were created by the same person who dreamed up Harry and Voldemort.
This does not mean the story is bad. The film is reminiscent of a Harry Potter production. The special effects are great, and Rowling creates an otherworldly dimension of exotic animals living in a battered leather briefcase with no space boundaries inside. The case is reminiscent of Hermione’s magic purse from which she could pull out an inordinate number of items, including a sleeping tent.
Scamander manages to pass his case through New York customs officers but loses it to an accidental switch with a look-alike belonging to a non-magical person, Jacob Kowalski. He is a cherubic aspiring baker, an average Joe. At first, Kowalski is terrified by the magical world, but then he embraces it. The fact that he falls for a beautiful witch helps.
Kowalski steals the show
Dan Fogler offers the best performance of the cast as Kowalski, who warms our hearts and charms us with his unassuming expressiveness and inner wisdom. He is so charming, he steals the show from Redmayne and his wizarding lot. Hopefully, we’ll get to see him in future episodes.
Academy Award winner Redmayne offers a good performance as the resourceful Scamander, who escapes the magical council and tries to retrieve his creatures before the council finds and destroys them.
There is romance in the story, too. Affection slowly develops between Scamander and Tina, a former council investigator who is trying to protect him. The best chemistry, however, is between Tina’s gorgeous magical sister, Queenie, and pudgy Jacob.
The four of them set out to retrieve the escaped creatures, exonerate Scamander and find out who really is behind the attacks. It may come as no surprise that these are some of the same culprits who afflicted the Harry Potter world.
“There are ways in which we connect the Potter books that people will find surprising,” Rowling said. “We are talking about the first time a wizard grows and threatens the world order,” she said, reminding us that Harry Potter’s theme of opposition to bigotry and to the idea of racial purity of magical folk against ordinary people is repeated in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
While Potter fans can revel in the message and the magic of the movie, the script falls rather flat, and the cast does not quite excite as Harry Potter’s did; however, Rowling promises more to come in this newly developed franchise. Despite the slow start, Harry Potter fans can live on that promise.