J.K. ROWLING, for many in my generation, is pretty much the British writer of the epoch of the mid 90s – mid 00s or, as they’re now often affectionately dubbed, the Blair years [assuming those years are now indeed behind us]. Her impact upon the children’s and young adult literature genres is indisputable, inspiring a veritable cornucopia of works in every medium. From Tara Gilesby’s truly unique My Immortal fanfiction saga to Tony Terlizzi and Holly Black’s bestselling Spiderwick Chronicles, the influence of Rowling and Pottermania has been profound, changing the face of both the publishing and bookselling industry.
True to form, 2016 has been a huge year for Rowling. Despite a mixed reception, The Cursed Child has broken every kind of record for British theatre sales and is the fastest selling play in English, and the near-simultaneous release of early trailers for Fantastic Beasts have helped return Rowling and the Potterverse back to the pinnacle of public interest. While both works represent a clear return to the genre and worldbuilding which built Rowling’s fortune and reputation, the influence of her more recent crime fiction projects is apparent in both; but most especially in Fantastic Beasts. The prohibition-era New York makes for a setting which is at once vibrant, new and instantly engaging, and yet – with all the dark alleyways and colossal skyscrapers – one which allows for a considerable degree of mystery and foreboding. The perfect setting, in short, for a crime drama.
The original Potter series succeeded in finding the magic in picturesque castles and sleepy villages. Fantastic Beasts finds it amongst the bustling activity and urban sprawl of a burgeoning city. Whereas for Harry, the wizarding world of Hogwarts represents a place of wonder and freedom, Fantastic Beasts magic has a covert and subversive quality which is reflected in the residences of the American wizards, creatures and their wizarding government, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MaCUSA).
Where Hogwarts is characterised by its enchanted seclusion from the outside world, as a refuge for freaks and outcasts like Harry, the witches and wizards of New York live underground, in many cases, literally, in hidden apartments and enchanted nightclubs where elves and goblins gather to jazz the night away whilst the mundane world sleeps above. It makes for an intriguing expansion to the isolated world of Hogwarts, exploring much more explicitly than its predecessor the ways in which the wizarding world interacts and co-exists with that of the muggles- or ‘nomaj’s’ as the American wizards term them.
It’s not only the setting which is new about Fantastic Beasts, of course. For one thing, the tone is consistently considerably darker and more mature. One of the biggest accomplishments of the original novels and films was their capacity to grow and develop alongside their audience – where The Philosopher’s Stone devotes whole chapters to describing wizard sweets and trading cards, The Deathly Hallows deals with themes of guilt, loss and sacrifice.
What was rarely in evidence was what the calamities of the plot meant for the wider world beyond Hogwarts and a few associated witches and wizards. Neither, beyond a few throwaway characters, gags, and the Dursleys – who seldom have the chance to develop beyond the pastiches they are initially characterised as – is there much of a sense of how witches and wizards interact with mundane world.
In Fantastic Beasts the wider world is front and centre and the threatening undercurrent persists throughout. Whether it be the New Salem Philanthropic Society’s public tirades against ‘witches that live among us!’ or the magical press cuttings which indicate the tumult in Europe, this is a world where danger is always looming. The divisive political discord of the period work to the film’s strength, with the MaCUSA’s policy of enforced segregation between the wizarding world and nomaj’s serving as a surprisingly potent analogy for contemporary socio-political segregation. Newt comments early on in the film on the dramatically different approaches British and American wizards and witches take towards their non-magic counterparts, whilst the British ministry keeps careful tabs on wizard-muggle contact, in the States it is strictly forbidden and marriage between the two groups is highly illegal.
Perhaps the two characters that best explore this theme of contrived segregation, and whether it is in the interest of nomaj’s themselves to be ignorant of the magical world or not, are Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and the nomaj factory worker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Farrell does an excellent turn as Graves, an unscrupulous Chief Auror in the MaCUSA who is prepared to use manipulation, intimidation and even dark magic to achieve his own agenda. After Finnes’ fantastically memorable but decidedly hammy and, at times, pantomime portrayal of Voldermort, it makes a refreshing change to have a more insidious villain with considerably more nuance.
While Voldermort only controlled his followers through fear – and getting uncomfortably close – Graves uses the allure of magic and power to manipulate other characters to act against their own interests, as in his scenes with the troubled Credence (Ezra Milller) Mary Lou Barebone’s adopted son. Samantha Morton as the abusive and puritanical orphanage matriarch cum preacher Mary Lou gives a similarly chilling performance, channelling by turns Nurse Ratched and Margaret White.
Where it would have been easy for Fogler to act as stapled-on comic relief with only a cursory relationship to the plot, Kowalski instead acts as a lens for us to be reintroduced to the magical world. In Kowalski, we get a character who is pulled into the wizarding world by chance rather than design, and Fogler imbues the character with considerable warmth, as an everyman tired of his utilitarian job who longs to escape to his real passion of baking.
It is in his scenes with Newton (‘Newt’) Scammander (Eddie Redmayne) and his delight when discovering the magical beasts for the first time that we best appreciate how fantastic they are meant to be. Likewise, the performances of the supporting cast, help to introduce a range of new and largely interesting characters, such as the no-nonsense and ambitious would-be Auror Tina (Waterston) who serves as a great foil to the eccentric Newt, and Queenie, her irrepressible sister, played to bubbly perfection by Sudol.
Funnily enough, perhaps the weakest elements in the film are our protagonist and his fantastic creatures. Whilst Redmayne’s performance gives a strong impression of the character as a reserved introvert who comes to life in the company of his wild menagerie, and it’s clear he put a good deal of thought into the character and his physicality, we nevertheless walk away with a rather weak impression of who Newt is, why he’s there and what makes him tick. This mostly seems down to the pacing of the film, which rarely lets up. Fantastic Beasts throws us right into the action, revealing only glimmers of backstory at those occasional moments when the pace abates. Hopefully, now that the gravy train is truly rolling and an inordinate number of sequels are in the pipeline, there should be ample opportunity for Rowling and co. to properly develop Newt as a character.
Meanwhile, the film’s titular beasts are a mixed bag. Once again, while the effort that went into individual design and is impressive, we rarely get to know much about the creatures themselves; a shame, considering the film was inspired by a mock bestiary. There are some notable exceptions: the Niffler – a rapacious cross between a mole and a shrew – which wreaks havoc in its efforts at pilfering New York oozes personality and makes for some great comic scenes. The CG is generally impressive but only occasionally succeeds in creating creatures which have a palpable and genuine physicality to them. The effect is at its weakest in scenes like the warehouse of creatures inside Newt’s suitcase, where a plethora of CG beasts are introduced in immediate succession.
It must be said that the creature which is perhaps least convincing is meant to be the film’s chief source of conflict: the Obscurus. Whilst a monster born out of a wizard or witches’ own supressed power – with typically tragic results – is an interesting concept, it is mostly portrayed simply as a floating void, which makes for a pretty uninspired threat, especially considering the vast range of monsters the production team could’ve drawn upon for inspiration.
Despite numerous dark elements, there’s plenty of fun in Fantastic Beasts. One of the key motifs and plot points throughout the film is Newt’s suitcase, literally bursting at the seems with magical creatures, like the wizarding equivalent of a pokeball. Like the wizarding world MaCUSA keeps hidden and supressed, the tyrannical repression Mary Lou wields in her orphanage, and Newt’s own socially-stunted personality, the suitcase tries to keep magic cloistered and at bay, but often bursts forth with wonder and mayhem.
It’s hard to imagine how Fantastic Beasts could be more different than the eponymous source material: a slight little volume released for Comic relief in 2001 depicting a mock magical textbook bestiary replete with scribbled marginalia from Harry, Ron and Hermione. Even the little book’s short prefix on Newt differs from the film’s portrayal and lore in almost every detail. But that is exactly the main strength of the film: building upon the foundations of a now widely familiar lore and exploring new characters, histories and aspects to Rowling’s magical world.
In terms of spin-off sequels, Fantastic Beasts does everything a good one should: it builds upon the law and introduces new and mostly engaging characters, whilst telling its own succinct story. It makes use of a now familiar established universe but isn’t hamstrung by the need to pay to constant homage to its predecessors or worse, religiously replicate the original formula. [Like two particular Star-themed franchises which spring to mind.]
It’s not quite a fully fledged animal by any means, in many ways the character we end up understanding least is our supposed protagonist, but it’s a very promising introduction and a welcome return to a world many already know and love.