Many have probably heard by now that J.K. Rowling has begun a new spin-off in the Harry Potter universe. The first in this 5-film series, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a screenplay depicting the origins of the textbook, of the same name, published by Rowling in 2001. The movie is set in 1926 New York City, where English wizard Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), author of the famous textbook, has stopped off during his global journey to capture and study magical creatures from around the world. Misadventures ensue as his creatures escape and cause mayhem, while Salem-inspired witch-hunters prove to be a dangerous problem for the American wizarding community. The movie seems to be an interesting beginning to the new magical series. (Warning: the rest of this column contains spoilers.)
As predicted, the special effects in this movie do not disappoint. The magic in the last few Potter films was spectacular, but “Fantastic Beasts” took it to a whole new level. With more of an emphasis on the creatures of the wizarding world, the creativity exercised in animating those magical beasts was pushed to new limits. Newt Scamander’s bottomless suitcase contains several ecosystems full of creatures, including both new and reappearing creatures. Many will recognize the Niffler, a platypus-like critter that enjoys stealing shiny things, and the Bowtruckle, a tiny, thin creature that appears to be made of green twigs. The creatures aren’t the only source of wonder in the film, though — CGI New York City has been demolished and rebuilt countless times in the history of Western cinema, but never before by a colossal Erumpent (think radioactive rhinoceros) on a wild, lustful rampage.
The music in this film is also, predictably, spectacular. As the main titles flash across the movie screen, the audience gets to hear the familiar tune of “Hedwig’s Theme,” one of the most commonly recognized musical motifs in modern day cinema. This quickly transitions into a new musical theme, unique to “Fantastic Beasts” and rather upbeat and exciting. Every scene, from the bank to MACUSA (The Magical Congress of the United States of America) headquarters, to the myriad of chase scenes, is slightly reminiscent of Harry Potter’s whimsical, chromatic melodies, but there are several new motifs and styles that weren’t present in previous magical films. Because of the American setting, jazz is incorporated into the scoring as often as possible; there’s even a brief jazz club scene with a scat-singing house elf. The music is a perfect combination of familiar Potter and original “Fantastic Beasts.”
The movie isn’t all theatrical hijinks and silly creatures, though. The subplot to Newt Scamander’s exciting adventure in America is a darker, more serious tale. The New Salem Philanthropic Society, a dangerously old-fashioned cult of non-wizards, desire to uncover wizards from hiding and destroy them. Frightening scenes of abuse and neglect of children who are suspected to be wizards result in the creation of a rare magical beast: The Obscurus.
This creature is the tortured remains of a magical child whose magic has been suppressed, manifesting itself in tempestuous swirls of black energy. The Obscurus has no self control and can only bring mayhem and destruction, unless someone can reach the child inside it and help them recover. This creature has clear symbolic ties to the suffering of LGBT children in America, particularly at the hands of their families. According to The Trevor Project, “LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide” than LGB peers whose families are more accepting, and the statistics get worse with transgender children. Whether or not J.K. Rowling meant for this connection to be made, it certainly can be made, and the result is a powerful analysis of America’s treatment of LGBT youth.
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a well-done, exciting flick that I encourage everyone to take the time to go see. I can’t wait to watch the upcoming movies in this ever-thrilling series.