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Fantastic Beasts Review: A Complicated Adventure for the Potter Fans Who Finally Grew Up

4 out of 5 Wands

It’s not a stretch of the imagination to say that many of us cite Harry Potter as an integral part of our adolescence. From the books in the late ’90s to the the movies in the early ’00s to present day’s Pottermore, it’s hard to imagine a time when none of these amazing stories from J.K. Rowling existed. She has managed to keep this world relevant for newcomers while adapting her stories for a rapidly growing audience—which brings me to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

This latest entry to Rowling’s cinematic wizarding world is a complicated mixture of whimsical fun, sweet romance, and pitiless darkness. It’s a film that recognizes her young fans, the ones who begged their parents to take them to the opening of The Sorcerer’s Stone, have all grown up.

The Good

One of the things I appreciate about the film is that it includes these little nods to the stories we all know so well (they take place in the same universe, after all), but it doesn’t dwell on them. So you’ll get little treats like someone name-dropping Dumbledore or a reference to those great Ilvermorny versus Hogwarts debates we know have occurred between many a magical student. The film also allows you to adjust to this entirely different time and place, New York City during the Roaring ’20s, by introducing some great new characters like Jacob, a No-maj (the American word for Muggle) who’s suddenly pulled into a strange adventure when he accidental swaps cases with Newt.

It was also exciting to see female characters represented in such prominent roles, especially since the film is set less then a decade after women were granted the right to vote. There’s Tina, a pants-wearing do-gooder working for The Magical Congress of the United States of America (which is like the Ministry of Magic, only not British). We also have Queeny, the sultry mindreader who isn’t afraid to show off her sexuality. Plus, Seraphina Picquery, a woman of color, happens to be the president of the MACUSA.

The Great

I don’t think this film would have been quite as enjoyable if Eddie Redmayne wasn’t such a perfect on-screen representation of a Hufflepuff. Newt’s earnestness and genuine admiration for the diverse creatures housed in his little brown suitcase more than make up for his lack of social skills. Plus, his new friends—Queenie, Tina, and Jacob—carried their weight in gold when it came to likability.

With that said, it’s the beasts who really stand out, for obvious reasons. From the co-dependent bowtruckle to the jewelry-stealing niffler, these unique and diverse creatures serve as an on-screen representation of the melting pot nature of America. It’s hard ignore the sobering parallels between these colorful characters who are being persecuted by those who didn’t take the time to understand them, and the real-life individuals in this country who may, sadly, suffer a similar fate without steadfast protectors like Newt.

The Not So Great

Child abuse is a theme not unfamiliar to the Potterverse, but this film takes things much further than Harry’s neglectful foster parents in the previous Potter stories. It was uncomfortable to watch Credence (played by Ezra Miller) repress not only his magic but the traumatic effects from the physical and emotional abuse by his witch-hunting foster mom, Mary Lou, because it felt too real in film that also includes floating pastries.  At times, it felt like I was watching an entirely different movie. Perhaps I would have been more receptive of their scenes had I not also endured ones involving the highly inappropriate relationship between Credence and Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell).

Ezra described their relationship to me in an interview as “two people wanting something from each other,” but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to it. Setting aside the gross power imbalance (Graves is not only older, but an authority figure as well), there’s something oddly sexual in the way that Graves would grab Credence’s face and whisper in his ear. It’s hard to shake off that level of creepiness when the film cuts to whimsical scenes like Newt performing a mating dance to lure an erumpent back into his suitcase.

Final Thoughts

While the movie does falter in its ability to balance the light with the dark, I found that the positive aspects of it outweighed the negative by far. This is a fun film with great new characters and a compelling soundtrack from James Newton Howard, the man behind the music for The Hunger Games, The Dark Knight and a good chunk of M. Night Shyamalan’s thrillers. If you don’t go in expecting another Potter film, it works just fine.

(image via screencap)

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