Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was once a slim little book, a for-charity effort pretending to be a Hogwarts textbook. Fantastic Beasts the film (written solely by Harry Potter et al. author J.K. Rowling) bears very little resemblance to that tiny tome, apart from containing many beasts.
The latest expansion pack to the Potterverse, Beasts follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who comes from the U.K. to the U.S. with a magical suitcase full of all manner of creatures. Naturally, some of them escape, leading to a lot of beautifully created CGI hijinks.
Newt reluctantly befriends Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a no-maj (American for muggle) who stumbles into Newt’s path, and Tina (Katherine Waterson), a former auror now demoted to issuing wand permits. Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a mind reader, which comes in handy when the story wants you to know something that a character would prefer to keep to himself.
Newt’s story is a lively scamper across 1920s New York and involves an impossibly endearing sequence in which Redmayne performs an elaborate, goofy mating dance for a creature resembling an inflated rhinoceros that has swallowed a string of Christmas lights.
But alongside this story runs something much darker. The movie opens with a series of headlines about Gellert Grindelwald, who is not a very nice wizard. In New York, the New Salemers — led by a creepy Samantha Morton — call for the demise of witchcraft. The magical community is terrified of being found out; they think it would lead to war with the no-majs. Given that their president, Serafina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), mostly stands around being disapproving, they’re probably right to worry.
Fantastic Beasts is clearly building a foundation for its four expected sequels, and it tries to be two movies at once. One is a heartfelt romp about Newt, who loves his creatures more than he cares about people, and who finds unexpected human connection. The other is about what happens when you force people to hide who they are.
On screen, Rowling and director David Yates offer a swirling dark mass, an eerie representation of the rage and fear felt by an oppressed child. But off-screen and on, Rowling has stumbled repeatedly in her creation of the American wizarding world. On her website, Pottermore, she posted bits of American magical history that were a colonialist, appropriative mess. And Fantastic Beasts shows little response to years of criticism that the Potterverse lacks diversity; the Magical Congress of the United States may be cast with a wide range of actors in largely non-speaking parts, and unmagical New York is astonishingly pale.
Potter fans — and I count myself among them — can hardly watch Beasts without having all of this in mind, which makes it a peculiar experience. On the one hand, it answers the question “Can you make a Harry Potter movie without Harry Potter?” with a solid yes, and I could spend hours watching Redmayne chase magical creatures.
On the other, however, it feels like a sign that Rowling, despite her good intentions, isn’t doing the work to make her world as truly inclusive and relevant as she wants it to be. (Regal Valley River, Cinemark 17)