In 2011, I left the theater after seeing the eighth and supposedly final Harry Potter film, sobbing and coming to grips with the end of an era. The films that brought the books of my childhood to life were supposed to be over.
Now, in 2016, I left the theater grinning after seeing a brand new addition to the magical world of Harry Potter that felt fresh and awakened feelings of my childhood that I hadn’t experienced in a while.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is the first in a series of prequel films to the Harry Potter franchise, taking place in the 1920’s and focusing on the exploits of “magizoologist” Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), whom Potter fans may recognize as the author of the eponymous guide to beasts that Hogwarts students use as a textbook. While the film integrates a few familiar names and faces from the original series such as Scamander, Gellert Grindelwald, and even Albus Dumbledore, the story itself has never before been seen in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
Fantastic Beasts is tasked with constructing a new American magical mythos which has been briefly explored in Rowling’s website “Pottermore,” where she uploads new stories that take place in the Potterverse. Only recently did she give a name to the American wizarding school, called Ilvermorny.
Before, the Potter franchise had only ever explored the reaches of British wizardry, but this film strongly establishes a magical legacy in America that feels familiar but also brand new. One of the centerpieces of the film, apart from its menagerie of magical monsters, is the MACUSA, or Magical Congress of the United States. It operates like the familiar Ministry of Magic, but introduces new challenges of secrecy and safety facing the wizards of New York in the prohibition era, already a turbulent time in interwar America.
Don’t go in expecting the exact same childhood naiveté of watching a young Harry Potter being initiated into a magical world and learning how to be a wizard through Hogwarts school. While the whimsy of the magical world persists in this film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” deals much more with the bureaucracy of magic in America, and the social structures that are poised to give rise to some of the most evil wizards in history.
The plot beats are engrossing, and present an adventure that goes from finding the aforementioned whimsical beasts to exposing institutional evils within the Magical Congress. The series has matured appropriately with its viewers, but isn’t too proud to hearken back to the same humor, optimism, and emotion that made us fall in love with these films in the first place.
Instead of the original trio of Harry Potter heroes, Fantastic Beasts changes up the formula and gives us a main character who lacks social prowess but has immense compassion for misunderstood magical animals. Caught up in his adventure through New York, we see two witch sisters who have to teach him the ropes of American wizardry and a hapless “no-maj,” or non-magical person, who discovers a world he was never meant to see.
Both Newt and the no-maj are outsiders to the American wizarding world, which we as an audience will begin to understand as the series continues. Departing from the very insular world of Hogwarts, this historical take on Harry Potter lore shows us the tensions between the magical and non-magical communities, and the dangers that result when these two worlds collide.
While some might find it frustrating to be unable to reference the plot in from a book, like was possible with the original film series, “Fantastic Beasts” is a fresh step towards expanding the magical world in unpredictable and innovative ways. It was exciting to go in without knowing what to expect.
The film assumes viewers have at least a passing familiarity with the Potter franchise, and while it does well even as a standalone, longtime fans will get the fullest viewing experience. Subtle references connect far-reaching plot points that begin to reveal the possible trajectory of the prequel series for those who know the series well.
Whether you’re a Muggle or grew up with the Harry Potter world, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” brings the magic back to life with a strong start to a whole new adventure. It sets high stakes for what’s to come, but the full scope of the story remains a mystery because it does not adhere to any books.
As a longtime Potter fan, I cannot wait to see what fantastic new beats, and beasts, this series will find and tackle in the future. This film truly reminds us that the magical world of Harry Potter will always be there to welcome us home.