By Lilly Ball
Only when watching a “Harry Potter” film could audience members exit the theater with the urge to immerse themselves even more in the story just presented to them on screen. What has always made the wizarding world so incredible is the fact that it extends beyond books, films and even amusement parks; it is an ever-growing universe that fans can engross themselves in, one that evokes such joy that people aren’t ashamed to label themselves “Potterheads.” Nearly 20 years ago, J.K. Rowling gifted the masses with a magic that they could bond over and identify with — a magic that has been restored through an entirely new story and set of characters in the franchise’s most recent multi-part film release, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
A full 54 years before the birth of Harry Potter, British wizard Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) travels to New York in 1926 with a collection of magical creatures concealed in his seemingly ordinary suitcase. After entering the city, Newt discovers a woman preaching against magic, who is revealed to be “Second Salem-er” Mary Lou Barebone. Mary, along with her army of adopted children, proclaims wizards as the root of all evil and the reason for recent, unexplainable tragedies. Shortly after, one of Newt’s creatures escapes from his suitcase and enters a nearby bank in search of shiny objects. In the ensuing chaos, Newt accidentally switches his suitcase with one owned by Jacob Kowalski, a human with no concept of magic. Before Newt can amend the situation, he is arrested and taken to the Magical Congress of the United States of America headquarters by Porpentina Goldstein. While Newt is occupied with his arrest, Jacob opens the suitcase, releasing several magical creatures onto the streets of New York. As Newt, Porpentina and Jacob attempt to retrieve the creatures before they injure anyone or become injured, another mysterious force wreaks havoc on the city.
There was a certain sense of wonder that accompanied watching each “Harry Potter” film for the first time, something I feared director David Yates would be unable to recreate in future installments. Yet somehow, as I watched “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” I felt tears well up in my eyes in a very familiar way, as I fell in love with Newt’s offbeat personality just as I did with Harry’s. Though Eddie Redmayne is an Academy Award-winning actor, he presents a version of himself that is entirely “Newt.” He wobbles about the screen awkwardly, never looking people directly in the eye, and doesn’t appear confident in any way until he flamboyantly recreates an Erumpent mating dance. Despite his unconventional behavior, Newt is an entirely lovable character, thanks to Redmayne’s surprising performance and J.K. Rowling’s masterful screenwriting debut. With all the characters created solely for the film with no novel to go by, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to love and appreciate them as I had with Harry, Ron and Hermione. But Rowling did a masterful job crafting each personality and subtly hinting at their backstories so that I truly cared for Newt and his companions by the time the film came to an end.
Beyond the story and the characters, much of the film’s charm should be attributed to the truly fantastical CGI monsters that exist within the world of Newt’s suitcase. “Fantastic Beasts” introduces a litany of creatures beyond the familiar Hippogriff, such as the Niffler, Demiguise and Occamy. Each creature is beyond what could ever be imagined, yet are somehow animated realistically enough to seem as if they could exist in some otherworldly zoo. Their scales shimmer, noses twitch and feathers fluff as if the cast were acting amongst very strange, but real animals.
Though in “Fantastic Beasts,” New York encapsulates a hidden world just as London did in “Harry Potter,” there is much more interaction between wizards and muggles, and this is an aspect that makes the film more accessible to its human audience. The wizards are constantly battling an “us against them” mindset, since they are forced to hide from their human counterparts, citing the Salem Witch Trials as proof that they cannot be fully trusted. The social issues presented in the film, though under the guise of fantasy, could easily be compared to current issues within real, non-magic human society. There are no instances of racism in connection to skin color, yet many of the human characters find themselves threatened by those who harness powers they do not, while in return, the wizards judge them for their lack of abilities.
When “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” signified the end of J.K. Rowling’s on-screen creations in 2011, it seemed as if her special brand of perfection would never again grace the silver screen. However, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” makes it clear that there are many more wizarding tales to explore, and as long as directors don’t suck the magic out of the story for the sake of franchise, fans will welcome each installment with open arms.