The leading man of Rowling’s latest venture, Newt Scamander, has cut an odd path through the Potterverse. The first mention of him comes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when his name appears on a list of text books that Harry has to buy for school. It’s hardly the most interesting thing in a chapter that functions as ours, and Harry’s, first major immersion in the wizarding world, so most fans would be forgiven for paying no attention to him at all. Indeed, his book would probably have suffered the fate of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by the appropriately named Phyllida Spore, had it not been for Rowling’s deciding to give his work physical form, and release it to the Muggles. Thus, in 2001, we got our hands on Scamander’s seminal work, which carefully documents and introduces to its readers the fauna of Harry’s world: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
How does a textbook translate into film? It’s a bit of an odd proposition, no matter that the textbook itself is part of an immensely popular franchise. In her first outing as a screenplay writer, Rowling has done a brilliant, characteristically magical job: Fantastic Beasts veers quite a bit from its academic origins, and is, instead, a romp through 1920s New York City (specifically Manhattan), with some beasts thrown in for good measure. Tension is high in the City that Never Sleeps, with mysterious attacks leaving buildings and lives destroyed, and internationally feared wizard Gellert Grindelwald on the loose. Relations with ‘No-Majs’ (that’s what American wizards call ‘Muggles’) are banned, and even so, tension seems on the rise within American society, with a group known as the Second Salemers preaching that ‘witches live among us,’ and are responsible for the chaos in the city. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for disgraced Auror, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) to ignore, and when Eddie Redmayne’s charming, absent minded professorish Newt Scamander arrives in this mess, touting a briefcase full of illegal, magical creatures, she knows better than to simply ignore him.
Fantastic Beasts is a fun movie, and there’s few enough of those around. The greatest thing about Rowling’s writing is the puzzle-box aspect of it: how you can unpack layers of meaning and theme from its seemingly simple sentences if you want to, but you could simply take it as surface value if you want to. The latter reading offers more than enough to satisfy a viewer: an engaging storyline, packed with twists and turns, a well-realized world (though I did have some quibbles, which can be addressed later), good casting (hello Colin Farrell!) and truly superb visual effects. If there’s one thing a movie about magical beasts needs, its the latter, and WarnerBros really didn’t stint on the VFX budget.
As far as its place within the larger Potterverse goes, there’s still some debate. Is Fantastic Beasts canon? Since it was written by J.K. Rowling (and no co-written, as Cursed Child was), the answer seems to be ‘yes’. It’s certainly being positioned as an important brick in Rowling’s larger magical universe. WarnerBros has announced that there will be a total of five movies in this franchise, with Rowling adding that they will span the timeframe of 1926 to 1945. Any Harry Potter fan worth their Floo Powder knows what the second year signifies: while for Muggles, it heralded the end of World War II, and the defeat of the Axis Powers, in the magical world, it marks the infamous duel between Albus Dumbledore and the Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, one that ended in Grindelwald’s defeat, and Dumbledore walking away with the Elder Wand, the unbeatable Hallow that Voldemort searches for with mounting desperation in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
So if the Harry Potter books chronicled the second rise, and fall, of Voldemort, the Fantastic Beasts movies will probably do the same for Grindelwald. It seems evident we’ll see a young Dumbledore at some point, a wizard in his prime, and maybe even a few more of the characters we’ve gotten much more ‘adult’ glimpses of in the books: Horace Slughorn, Minerva McGonagall, maybe even a young and sinister Tom Riddle. The possibilities are endless.
If the whole ‘point’ of Fantastic Beasts is to provide a lens through which to view this turbulent time in wizarding history, Newt Scamander seems like the perfect protagonist through whom to do it. Apart from his obvious love for magical creatures, there seems to be very little that defines Newt. In the course of the film, it’s revealed that he was in Hufflepuff, that he was expelled from Hogwarts on account of a ‘beast’, and that he is friends with Albus Dumbledore. Oh, also that he was friends with someone named Leta Lestrange, but that she changed a great deal. He also seems to be a competent enough wizard, and has indeed performed one commendable feat that none can believe (not spoiling it here, though it’s important in the context of the movie). This is the sum total of what we know of him, and the way Redmayne plays him, it’s easy enough to forget that there is definitely more to him than that. Redmayne is wonderful as always, maybe too wonderful, slipping into the background as Newt would no doubt want to do, allowing other characters, particularly Tina and her Legilimens (‘mind reading’) sister Queenie to take centre stage. Farrell’s Auror Graves is appropriately sinister and almost alarmingly powerful, and Ezra Miller, one of the most promising young actors out there, is the repressed, confused Second Salemer Credence, lured by the magical world, and hungering to join it. Miller’s desperation and loneliness rings through the movie, not at all dampened by the unfortunate pudding bowl haircut inflicted upon him by the make-up department.
Unlike the events of the Potter series, which were centred around one young wizard, Fantastic Beasts is obviously keen on being much ‘larger’. It will sweep through a number of countries, no doubt, taking us to all the places Newt ventures in search of magical creatures, a quest that unfolds against the backdrop of larger political and cultural currents, the rise and fall of governments and dark wizards, of old wars and new. If Harry Potter funneled the conflicts symbolized by Voldemort and Dumbledore, and played them out within the microcosm of one school and in the heart of one boy, Fantastic Beasts dispenses with the one boy altogether, and lets the larger world splay itself across the screen, as it does right from the opening titles, newspapers flipping open one after the other. Despite this, Rowling does a tremendous job of keeping the eponymous beasts front and centre, refusing to let viewers forget them even as the wizards convene in emergency parliaments and unleash powerful magic. The question is whether she can keep this up for four more movies, or whether the largeness of her own creation will swallow those little details, the intricate pieces of her puzzle-box, whole.