Sometimes ideas that start small can grow to be achievements larger and more successful than anyone could imagine. Such is the case with JK Rowling’s magical fantasy world of Harry Potter.
An idea that popped in to her head on a train ride, developed into one of the most successful and entertaining book series and film franchises of all time. The Harry Potter series of fantasy novels spanning 7 books and adapted for screen in 8 separate films are beloved worldwide by children and adults alike. It is Rowling’s talent for imaginative and detailed world-building that has allowed for the Harry Potter universe to produce a spin-off play, The Cursed Child, a series of films based on the short book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the website Pottermore, part of the digital publishing, e-commerce, entertainment and news company Wizarding World.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was first published as a fictitious textbook under the name of fictional character Newt Scamander, a magical beasts expert and former Hogwarts pupil. The textbook is mentioned in the first Harry Potter book and explains the history of Magizoology and gives instructions on how to recognise and care for different species of magical creatures. In 2013 it was announced that it would be the inspiration for a film produced by Warner Bros Pictures and that JK Rowling would make her debut as screenwriter for the film. The film was released in cinemas in the UK in November 2016 with David Yates directing. It was later announced that the film would be the first in a series of movies following the adventures of Newt and charting events in the wizarding world pre-Harry Potter.
The film starts out in 1926 with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York in search of an endangered magical creature. Newt is a wizard whose affinity with animals and magical creatures marks him out as both eccentric and more ecologically minded than the rest of the wizarding community. He is a different kind of hero than the kind usually seen onscreen. Newt is shy, reserved and silent a lot of time. But his bravery, kindness and open mind contrast starkly with the more prejudiced characters in the story. Newt’s determination to preserve and improve the lives of his magical creatures, to act as their caretaker and protector gives Fantastic Beasts an admirable message of conservation that is neither preachy nor aggressively forced on to the audience.
Fantastic Beasts is firmly rooted in the adult world, rather the school environment of Hogwarts and so the characters are complex adults. The society of New York is shown as diverse and full of ‘muggles.’ The film has a darker tone than some of the Harry Potter films with issues such as the death penalty, animal rights and child abuse being explored in the magical world. The wizarding community even have their own ridiculous levels of bureaucracy, although instead of the British Ministry of Magic, this time it is The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) where magical politicians argue and paper is pushed about with wands. Magical warrants are issued and wizards and witches are forbidden from engaging in relationships with muggles (in America they are called ‘No-maj’). Through the scenes set in MACUSA’s Art Deco headquarters, the audience learns more about the international wizarding community and witnesses how magical diplomacy and politics works.
Muggle characters are also explored more in Fantastic Beasts than in previous Harry Potter films with the introduction of muggle character Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who gets accidentally mixed up with Newt and his creatures. Discrimination of the magical world is explored in the character of Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) a prejudiced muggle and the sinister leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society who aims to exterminate all witches and wizards. Morton almost steals the show with her portrayal of a woman who is both wholeheartedly committed to her beliefs and also completely blinded by her religion and ignorance.
Aside from an intriguing story, Fantastic Beasts is also a beautiful film boasting impressive sets that are rich with detail, magical references (house elves!) and yet also feel historically accurate. The costumes are beautiful and James Newton Howard’s score is evocative and emotional. He incorporates John William’s famous theme for Harry Potter but also adds a distinctively American-feel to the music. The special effects are also fun to watch. Stand out scenes include Newt and Kowalski climbing fully into a small suitcase which hides a zoo and a dinner scene where a witch cooks dinner using only her wand and magic powers as vegetables and ingredients fly through the air.
Fantastic Beasts is a fantastic film. It is a story that does not skirt around the poverty, corruption and prejudice in New York in the 1920s but at the same time shows that the greatest threat to world safety comes from the superior attitude of the magical community. It is a movie that shows the audience that the natural world is truly wondrous and that nature in all its forms should be protected. It develops some of the more adult themes introduced in the final few Harry Potter films and yet still retains just enough of the similar feel of the those movies to deliver a nostalgic visual treat that feels comforting and enchanting.
The film ends with the revealing of Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) who we know from wizarding history to be the second most powerful dark wizard of all time after Voldemort. When the next instalment in the series, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald opens in cinemas later this month, we expect we will learn more about this formidable villain. Its very likely the story will return to the familiar fight against bigotry and oppression and ideals of tolerance and peace that are found so often in Rowling’s work.
But for the child inside every adult viewer, we hope there is some magic too.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald will be in cinemas from Friday 16th.