Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply underappreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Fandom is a fickle fiend: the more it demands, the less it appreciates what that demand has wrought. So it has been with the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi, and so it was with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, 2016’s addition to the Harry Potter canon. Fantastic Beasts marks a return to the cinematic Potterverse after the final adaptation of the books hit theaters back in 2011, and what a magical homecoming it is. Despite my quibbles with the film – the silly Big Reveal, the enormous deus ex machina ending that feels far-fetched even by wizarding world standards – every time I immerse myself in Fantastic Beasts, I become even more enamored with the wondrous world J.K. Rowling has created. But Fantastic Beasts, penned by Rowling herself and directed by Potter veteran David Yates, doesn’t just deliver on the nostalgia front – it also offers new twists on old themes, and provides a very special, very culturally relevant hero in Newt Scamander.
Fantastic Beasts takes us across the pond and back in time, to 1920s New York City. Speakeasies lurk around every corner, jazz reigns supreme, and in the wizarding world, the dark and despotic Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) evades capture by peacekeeping Aurors – as is revealed to us through an opening montage of moving newspaper headlines, like a Potterfied version of a common Muggle film trope. However, speaking of “Muggles,” we’re not in England anymore: a non-magical person in America is called a “no-maj,” which is just one thing visiting Brit Newt Scamander (played by a perfectly cast Eddie Redmayne) needs to learn about the vastly different – and (surprise!) vastly more bigoted – society of his American counterparts.
Fresh off the boat, Newt stumbles upon a crowd of Second Salemers, a group of latter day Puritans led by Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton). Mary Lou is preaching about the dangers of witches living among us, but Newt can’t stick around to listen – he notices with dismay that his Niffler, a possum-like creature with an affinity for shiny objects, has escaped from the magical menagerie inside his otherwise common-looking briefcase. In an attempt to retrieve the nefarious Niffler, Newt crosses paths with no-Maj Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who yearns to quit his job at the canning factory to open his own bakery, and runs afoul of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a recently dismissed MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) Auror gunning for a chance to impress her former bosses.
Tina drags Newt, meek and bemused, into the MACUSA office, and we are treated to our first look at the American version of the Ministry of Magic: a sprawling, golden-hued atrium reminiscent of Grand Central Station, furnished with tokens of wizardkind – enchanted mops, inter-office memos that take the form of subway rats, and a massive clock that measures not the time, but the exposure threat level for the American magical community. The dial on the clock is set to “severe unexplained activity,” which has been occupying the attention of Tina’s former MACUSA colleagues, who scorn her attempts to get involved.
But Tina and Newt now have an even bigger problem: Newt’s case of magical creatures has been accidentally swapped with the ordinary briefcase belonging to the no-Maj Jacob, and several creatures are on the loose. While the MACUSA Aurors, including a mysterious Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), hunt down an unknown dark force, Newt, Jacob, Tina, and Tina’s bubbly sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) strive to find Newt’s precious creatures before they can wreak too much havoc on New York City. Or, in Newt’s view, exactly the opposite; as he explains, he needs to rescue his escaped beasts because “they’re currently in alien terrain, surrounded by millions of the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.”
Newt and Jacob crash at the Goldstein sisters’ apartment for the evening. As soon as they’re left alone, Newt invites Jacob into the enchanted briefcase, which is of course, much bigger on the inside. (Storybook metaphor alert!) Newt’s case contains a delightful assortment of fantastic beasts, roaming about in sprawling simulacra of their natural habitats: there’s the dragon-skinned, tentacle-mouthed Graphorn, one of the last of its kind; the regal, shimmering Thunderbird, native to Arizona; and the blue-plumed, serpentine Occamy, which emerges from eggs of the rarest silver. Rowling’s spellbinding imagination comes to life in Stuart Craig’s enthralling (and Oscar nominated!) production design, which sparkles with whimsy and wonder and is matched by the ethereal swell of James Newton Howard’s majestic score. It’s enough to make you truly believe in (movie) magic.
But what elevates this scene – and the entire film – even beyond the beguiling artistry of the world-building is Eddie Redmayne’s superb performance as Newt Scamander. Newt is a far cry from your typical fantasy hero. He’s awkward and weird; he’s a loner without the roguish charm, an eccentric without much redeeming social grace. His bowlegged shuffle and mop of unruly hair simultaneously represent someone who is supremely self-conscious and someone who couldn’t care less what others think of him. When Jacob suggests that people must really like Newt, Newt replies blithely: “No, I annoy people.” In short, Newt is more comfortable with his beloved beasts than with humans, making him an odd but all the more intriguing choice for a leading man. (Of course, thanks to Colleen Atwood’s Oscar-winning costume design, Newt still looks extremely dapper throughout the film.)
Yet Newt is also bona fide Hufflepuff; he doesn’t have a hostile bone in his body. In this sense, Newt’s character offers a refreshing antidote to the culture of toxic masculinity, which demands that young men be tough, strong, and stoic. Newt is the exact opposite of this “ideal.” When Jacob asks what Newt intends to do with the creatures, Newt expresses his mission to “rescue, nurture, and protect them, and gently try to educate my fellow wizards about them.” And when facing a dangerous creature at the end of the film, Newt opens up with an approach usually reserved for a gentle-hearted female character: “I’m here to help you, I’m not here to hurt you.” Newt’s instinct is to protect, not to harm; to nurture and educate, not to bluster about in ignorance. It’s no wonder Albus Dumbledore holds him in such high esteem, and certainly, we should too.
Queenie is a fascinating character as well. She’s unapologetically feminine, and she uses the “lady things” excuse to dissuade a snooping male MACUSA official from detaining her as she smuggles out Newt, Tina, and Jacob. She, too, has trouble communicating with other people – mostly because of her rare status as a Legilimens, or a mind-reader. In fact, all four members of the main crew are outsiders: Newt and Queenie, of course, but also Jacob, a no-Maj surrounded by witches and wizards, and Tina, a disgraced and friendless former Auror. No world-famous Chosen Ones in this band of misfits.
And then there’s Credence (Ezra Miller), a character who embodies this outsider status while also representing the darker themes of the movie. When we first see him, Credence is a member of the Second Salemers, who are viewed as “freaks” in the eyes of the general populace. Ironically, Mary Lou’s religious fanatics are actually correct – there are witches and wizards living in New York, after all – but the film cleverly plays with our expectations for the aggrieved underdogs by depicting them as wrongdoers as well. What’s more, the bigotry of the Second Salemers mirrors the bigotry of the American wizarding world, and it’s impossible to say where the cycle of hatred and mistrust began. Credence, meanwhile, is a castaway of both worlds: he has developed an Obscurus, a destructive force accidentally formed by a child who attempts to suppress their magical abilities – and a literalized symbol of the explosive burden of societal norms. Feared by wizardkind, mocked by No-majs, and abused by his adoptive mother, Credence is a chilling reminder of the undercurrent of darkness that runs through all of the best Harry Potter stories.
But also like the best Harry Potter stories, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a buoyant and soulful tale of friendship, wonder, and unexpected heroism. There is so much magic for Harry Potter fans young and old to luxuriate in: exciting new effects (Apparating off a roof!), jazzy new locales (a Star Wars cantina-like, magical speakeasy!), eye-popping new creatures (my own personal Best Supporting Actor nominee, Pickett the Bowtruckle!), and winks to the original Potter series (“Are you a seeker?” “I’m more of a Chaser, actually…”). And, of course, there’s Mr. Scamander himself, an unlikely but most welcome new hero. Yes, there’s fantastic magic in Fantastic Beasts – and it feels just like coming home.