Set nearly a century before the original Harry Potter series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows Newt Scamander as he attempts to protect his nifflers and bowtruckles from what he describes as the most dangerous creatures of all: humans. In fact, for a movie promoted as being about magical creatures, Fantastic Beasts is really about people. From MACUSA, the American magical government; to the New Salemers with their fanatical anti-witchcraft rhetoric; to Grindelwald, whose full influence on the story isn’t revealed until near the end, everyone seems to have their own ideas about how things should be, and everyone is willing to go to great lengths to achieve those goals. And at the heart of the story are four ordinary people who are just trying to round up Newt’s magical creatures, with little understanding of the larger forces at play. Yet those forces are what give the story substance.
Don’t get me wrong. The nifflers and bowtruckles are adorable. There’s a truly magical feeling to the world of Fantastic Beasts. It’s a natural offshoot of the Harry Potter world: not exactly as we know it, but familiar and easy to reconcile with what we’ve seen before. Just seeing the magical creatures from the spin-off book it’s based on would have been worth a trip to the theater. And Newt in particular is a great character, probably my favorite in the movie. He comes across as caring and gentle, a bit dorky, and totally genuine. His love for his creatures is apparent, and his quiet but earnest personality is endearing. He’s a compelling new protagonist different enough from Harry to stand on his own.
The other characters are great, too. Tina Goldstein isn’t quite what I was expecting, but she’s serious and well-intentioned and grows a lot over the course of the movie. Her sister Queenie is a quirky and kind young woman whose romance with “no-maj” Jacob is sweet without being too overdone. Credence Barebone comes across as so broken and fearful that he’s almost ready to collapse, while his adoptive mother Mary Lou is almost reminiscent of Umbridge minus the fake sweetness. Percival Graves is charismatic and cunning, fooling everyone including the viewer – and the less I say about that, the better.
I do, however, have a few criticisms. First of all, it didn’t quite feel American. Despite the American flags and accents, something about it just didn’t ring true. The best way I can sum it up is a British idea of America, which I guess it technically is. Then there’s Grindelwald. I liked his subplot, and the Percival Graves part of it was done well, but I don’t like the casting choice of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald, and his few minutes onscreen just didn’t feel right to me. He only has a small part in Fantastic Beasts, but I can’t imagine he won’t feature prominently in the sequels, so that’s something that worries me. Aside from that, there’s a scene set at MACUSA that feels over-the-top and unrealistic. Their method of executing criminals turns out to be drowning them in a giant pensieve full of something that’s probably not water, which is a bit too much even for a hardcore fan like me. Don’t worry, though; I may have a few complaints, but the movie overall was great.
And the reason it was great – aside from just putting so many obscure Harry Potter creatures onscreen – was the human aspect. The characters and their conflicts – from Tina’s desire to get her job as an auror back, to Newt’s determination to protect his creatures, to Credence’s fear and repression, to Jacob’s simple desire to open a bakery – ring true. The whimsical aspects of the movie are grounded by realistic human characters with believable emotions and struggles. That’s what makes Fantastic Beasts, like the Harry Potter series, a truly great fantasy movie.