The most striking thing about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is that it’s a “wizarding world of Harry Potter” story that isn’t centered on children. It’s about adults and how adults have the ability to create an environment in which children can thrive or one in which they wither. That tension ran through the background of the Harry Potter stories, but in this prequel film—the first of five scheduled to be released every other year through 2022—it’s foregrounded. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a movie for the now-adults who grew up reading the Harry Potter stories as children.
Set in the 1920s in New York City, the movie follows Newt Scamander as he accidentally releases and then catches a briefcase full of magical beasts. He’s joined by an ex-auror, her sister, and a portly, would-be baker “no-maj” (American for “muggle”) on his search. Their hunt gets them involved in the investigation of a series of strange explosions that have been puzzling both muggle and wizard alike. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot – that air of mystery and discovery has always been one of Rowling’s stories’ chief delights. She wrote this movie, and its atmosphere is what we Potterheads expect and love.
Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander as the kind of person who has been socially-awkward his whole life. My wife, an elementary school teacher, noted the way he avoids eye contact and shuffles around as if he’s in a world of his own. It reminded her of some of her students with special needs. When he retreats into his magical animal carrying case, among his beloved beasts, he comes alive though. Newt struck us as a man who has learned to function at a high level despite his social limitations, and this learned-coping is a result of the care offered him by a few individuals during his childhood years, Albus Dumbledore among them. This character history is implied throughout the movie, and though Newt isn’t supposed to be the central character in the future films in this series, I look forward to learning more about how an eccentric person like Newt was loved into living a full life.
Newt’s character is juxtaposed with another group of characters in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – children who have been adopted by a religious zealot named Mary Lou Barebone. Mary Lou is trying to start a “Second Salem” movement to rid America of witches and wizards. She also abuses the children under her authority, forcing any of them with magical abilities to repress that side of themselves. Newt exhibits special concern for kids like this.
Rowling’s stories have always exhibited special concern for outcasts and oddballs. In her books, I love her descriptions of the members of the Order of the Phoenix when they show up at the train station to pick up and drop off their kids each year. Rowling’s heroes are a rag-tag bunch. If you saw them on the street, you’d probably avoid eye contact or try to cross to the other side. In contrast, Rowling’s villains always display an undue preference for refinement and respectability. They’re all image and posture. England isn’t a particularly religious place, so I suppose there wasn’t reason to add holier-than-thou sanctimony to the mix of inauthentic posturing that make up her rogue gallery in the books and films based on them. America is religious, and that religious impulse has often been used to suppress persons deemed “different,” so it fits in Fantastic Beasts.
It’s also an indicator of the care with which this new “Wizarding World” story has been written. This isn’t merely a cash-grab. Thought has been given to how America would respond to witches and wizards and how the wizards and witches would respond in return. It’s true world expansion, not a mere rehash, and I can’t wait to see where they take us next.