It was the opening weekend for the Harry Potter series spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. So, I convinced some friends (one a fan like myself and the other not so much, but went with an open mind) to see if the hype lived up to my expectations.
CAUTION! THERE MAY BE MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
The first minute of the film, I was excited as I heard the telltale musical score, but was soon transported to an aesthetic of the United States in the 1920s, where we were introduced to an awkward but lovable fellow called Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). I’ve been a fan of Redmayne since his appearance in The Other Boleyn Girl and in the 2011 remake of Les Miserables. The cinematography was reminiscent of the later, much “darker” in terms of theme, Harry Potter film adaptations, which worked well for the more complex and mature themes (i.e. class divides, poverty, gender norms, child abuse, alcohol as contraband, latent sexuality as a trope, political power brokering etc.) trailing throughout the film.
Great moments of the Roaring Twenties appeared at the forefront of this film that met historic sights such as the Central Park Zoo and other NYC landmarks, which fared well with the tone set. Animal lovers and other moviegoers will appreciate the nostalgia of the 1920s setting and costume design, but also the not-so-subtle message of preserving various species (i.e. the diverse, colorful, and complex beasts listed in the film’s title) and taking the time to study and understand them much like our main character does. I would venture to say that this film will please both hardcore Harry Potter fans with the unique expansion of the HP universe and others with its casting and plot decisions.
Of particular note, I was thrilled and honestly surprised to see a woman of color in a position of power at the American version of the Ministry of Magic. This is a distinct moment because although the original children’s books are set in Europe, mainly the United Kingdom, where there is an expectation of ethnic and cultural diversity, American society was not as progressive at this point in history. Therefore, seeing a woman of color in a powerful, authoritative role speaks to a message of division, which exists in Rowling’s HP universe as class and species in the terms of magical v. non-magical, witches/wizards v. giants/werewolves etc. (HP fans are familiar with the term Muggle or in this film the equivalent is No-Maj.) Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) AKA President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America is clearly experienced, respected, ambitious due to her young appearance, and attractive to boot.
However, I was left with the nagging question as to whether it seemed a bit of a stretch for the time considering the historic and present racism that exists in this country. Either way I love her inclusion and that J.K. Rowling was involved in the decision making process that led to her casting. On another progressive and pleasant note, I’m thinking this film may pass the Bechdel Test where a film has two named women characters who speak to one another about something other than a man.
As much as the special effects (i.e. magical spell casting) delighted and frankly at some points startled me, I don’t think this film was worth seeing in 3D. I adore the entire movie-going experience, but the last few 3D films have left me wishing I hadn’t spent the money, and with a headache. So, for this film, I opted out of 3D and was perfectly stupefied and entertained. Though, I wish I had read the guidebook that inspired author and screenplay writer, I was thoroughly content with the direction of the plot and characterization.
There were great moments of hilarity that paired well and allowed viewers to swallow the moments of despair more easily. As Shakespeare was famous for his comedies and tragedies, this film uses both comedic relief and strife to drive plot and characters while keeping moviegoers’ attention. I was able to guess some plot reveals, but the biggest reveal I only pieced together a few moments before the film’s final scene.
Overall, I would certainly go see this film again to catch all of the references I missed the first time around, and pay attention to those British accents! I think this film was a good extension of the Harry Potter brand, while still giving enough room to explore this more mature cast of witches and wizards.
I give this movie 3.5 out of 5 stars because it sets the stage for greatness and to distinguish itself, but I found myself feeling a little claustrophobic and unsatisfied with the magical world despite being set in one of the greatest U.S. cities.