It’s not easy being Fantastic Beasts, the film set in the 1920s, hovering through an ugly period of American history with an almost snobbish retrospect. There’s magic though. All of the wand swinging, spell swirling, and creatures of the title play in. Overpowering them is an unusual social circumstance, the imported Brit Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) slyly picking apart a country’s paranoid biases with an outsider’s perspective.

The film has its mini-villian, a disguised religious puritan lashing out at depictions of magic, imparting a bit of Salem in the process, and not with subtly. Posters on the wall call for a “Second Salem.”  Plop in any social or civic cause Fantastic Beasts is ready to coast through social issues of race or sexual orientation. “I know you have rather backwards laws about relations with non-magic people… that you can’t marry them,” says Scamander. Again, not subtle, dividing an alternate history America into an America of real, recent history.

Fantastic Beasts is an odd one to preach – although preach has a negative connotation which isn’t the intent here. Rather, in a film inundated with a breathlessly recreated, turn-of-the-century New York (Model Ts and women dressed with shimmering gala attire) filled with the delectably designed critters, Fantastic Beasts’ plausible dark side brings an unexpected harshness.


Maybe this is David Yates’ talent, and of course to an extent J.K. Rowling. Balancing light and dark, fixated on the breezy while delivering an ugly underside. Those first Harry Potter films sure were pleasant and then, later, characters who couldn’t name another character out of raw fear.

Behind its thick brevity, particularly from a faultless Dan Fogler, Fantastic Beasts grimly depicts child abuse and corruption right at this outset, and in ways which refuse to speak down for the teen-ish audience. A PG-13 feels wrong, if only because Fantastic Beasts builds a safe, fictional tolerance to extreme human behavior. Cynical, maybe, but genuine.

A PG-13 feels wrong, if only because Fantastic Beasts builds a safe, fictional tolerance to extreme human behavior.

It’s not unfair to consider the profitability of a series like this. Does Fantastic Beasts need to exist for any other reason than to extend profits of a renowned franchise? No, but even in one film, Fantastic Beasts feels less contained by hype and pressure. Harry Potter wasn’t of the type to imbue an allegory for bigotry in the first movie, less the films deviate from their pre-written course. For Fantastic Beasts, these beginnings open on a separated origin, free from source material expectations.

Once past the opening logos, out goes John Williams’ masterful Harry Potter theme and in comes Jame Newton Howard’s Fantastic Beasts composition, a bit softer, if insinuating a bit more majesty than the film provides. The runtime enters an overrun for the sake of visual effects, chucking aside narrative progression for a rather amusing if ultimately empty “romantic” interlude between Fogler and an elephant-like creature. The ending too, or rather the endings, roll out in such number it’s a wonder if the film has a true conclusion.


Getting there is, generally, a joy. Concocting a generous, high-dollar aesthetic with plentiful imagination – creatures, costumes, and coloring all alike – each scene carries distinctive touches. Eddie Redmayne, cast as a depression-era Ghostbuster of sorts, does a lot with his role as Scamander. He’s meek, a bit odd, but an intellectually progressive savant whose interests and goals fall outside the inner-workings of humans and muggles.

Scamander is less an obvious hero than Potter whose entire fictional existence was never anything other than thematically righteous. Redmayne’s Scamander presents a bit of distance, even disinterest. The plausible sense Scamander would consider a wrong to preserve right comes via his shy mannerisms, setting up something which has an undecided future. That’s interesting storytelling bait, even if the magical battleground around him needs to service the frothing desire for prequels.

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Held together by surprisingly authentic historical bones, Fantastic Beasts brings about an unnecessary yet engrossing Harry Potter prequel.

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