It’s been a weird year for Harry Potter enthusiasts. First came the crushing disappointment of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which one might pejoratively call fanfiction if not for the fact that plenty of fanfiction actually adds to its source material (and none of it costs 30 bucks a pop). Then came the growing backlash to J.K. Rowling’s revisionist microblogging. Then came the election-provoked ire at those who dared sully politics with popular culture by comparing a made up demagogue to one who just seems like he’s made up.
Into this storm of intellectual property and identity politics comes Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David Yates (of the original Potter franchise’s back half) and written by Rowling herself. The story of a cripplingly shy “magizoologist” named Newt Scamander on the hunt for some escaped pets, Fantastic Beasts isn’t a great movie — but that’s not really what it’s trying to be.
The thing it is trying to be, very obviously, is the first in a (five-film!) franchise, a fact that opens it up to many of the same and now exhaustingly commonplace flaws as any other nine-figure swing. The movie is filled with people and plots that seem extraneous, underdeveloped, or both. One detour in particular, into an antimagic fanatic’s orphanage of horrors, feels particularly grafted on — until you realize it’s the seed of the cinematic universe to come, the overarching conflict that will carry over into the next movie after Eddie Redmayne’s Scamander and crew have figured out precisely where to find those mythical creatures.
But Fantastic Beasts doesn’t take place in just any cinematic universe. It’s not another Marvel test balloon, or an aggressively desaturated Zack Snyder production, or Angry Birds. Fantastic Beasts is a Harry Potter spinoff, and it’s the first Potter story to originate as moving image rather than written word. And while Fantastic Beasts has its flaws, I left thinking of it less as a movie and more as an immersive fandom experience, an awful-sounding phrase that could translate to cheap or exploitative, but left me in the happy, transported daze I hope for from the Potter-adjacent.
That feeling is Fantastic Beasts’ principal joy. By building the mere byline of a fictional textbook into a standalone story, and by beginning to fill in the hazy details of the Wizarding World’s Hitler parallel and Albus Dumbledore’s role in defeating him, Rowling imbues Fantastic Beasts from start to finish with a sense of discovery. Yates’s ample use of fancy-pants CGI and the combined wattage of an established star (Eddie Redmayne, in his ideal role as ASPCA Rescue Puppy) and a couple of ascendant ones (Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller) amplifies the excitement. In a movie working with a faux-textbook without characters, story, or what those in the business call “things that happen” as source material, excitement’s badly needed.
I had my issues — the aforementioned plotting, a Technicolor palette that ironically felt more childlike than the latter installments of a kids’ series, a continued tendency to accept allegories about race and ethnicity as adequate substitutes for discussing the real thing — but they paled in comparison to the nerd-wish fulfillment of learning how American magical society organizes itself, or seeing an Erumpent in action. It felt like an experiential hybrid between the density of fansite and official canon source Pottermore (not coincidentally, Rowling uploaded a trove of entries about the American wizarding school Ilvermorny months before Fantastic Beasts’ release) and the disbelief-suspending verisimilitude of Universal’s wildly popular Wizarding World theme parks. The narrative, while slight, is all but supplementary.
Right away, Fantastic Beasts feels capable of delivering on some of the Potterverse’s main promises, starting with its authorship. While Cursed Child gave Rowling a mere third of a story credit and left the actual writing to two outsiders, Fantastic Beasts is written in the same voice that drew us into Potter’s baroque world in the first place: Its dialogue has the same playfully mannered tone; its structure attempts the same balance between light caper and looming darkness, if not as successfully. Perhaps because of that, Fantastic Beasts has a far greater understanding of exactly what we want out of an extended Potterverse besides simply “more.” Here, it’s the opportunity to train our sights on what had previously been Harry’s peripheral vision, starting with an interlude in a location the books never so much as approached (New York City), set 70 years before their main events, and centered on a character with only the most tangential of relationships to Rowling’s first hero: a shared mentor in the form of an off-camera Albus Dumbledore.
Every fantasy story has to strike a balance between creating a world and telling a story within it. In the original series, Rowling erred toward the latter. There’s a temptation in genre writing to lay down reams of exposition even when it’s unconnected to the plot — you’ve thought up a whole world, so why let it go to waste? — but character and story are ultimately what make fantasy memorable. Rowling delivered a note-perfect coming of age story. That left an encyclopedia’s worth of intriguing references, from wizarding history to non-English locales, as breadcrumbs for Rowling and her audience to double back to later. Potter’s success — and the apparent and inexhaustible demand for more — has afforded Rowling the ability to do just that, filling in the gaps in her and our imaginations.
It’s easy and understandable to write all this expansion off as a near-predatory marketing tactic, and certainly important to note that Fantastic Beasts, Cursed Child, and the parks came to be out of a healthy profit motive rather than love for Rowling’s prose alone. But Fantastic Beasts’ value lies in its fulfillment of a genuine curiosity. It’s a crucial point of difference between Fantastic Beasts and other would-be franchises — what might be mere clumsy setup here promises the fulfillment of yet more real interest, like Newt’s old flame/Bellatrix ancestress/improbable Zoë Kravitz role Leta Lestrange, or the references to Newt’s newfound American friends Tina and Queenie Goldstein’s educations at Ilvermorny, the stateside version of Hogwarts so many American readers pined for and still wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Rowling’s unspooling a world even as she’s demonstrating how it works, a built-in advantage of a form more animated and lifelike than text. “Show, don’t tell” is hard advice for fantasy to follow on the page. On screen, it’s the default mode.