When J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, the main character was a 10-year-old, and his adventures were appropriate to kids that age: he went off to magical wizarding school, made friends, survived bullying, played sports, broke some rules and learned some secrets, and eventually found out that his mom’s love protected him from the scariest things in his world. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had its dark and creepy elements, but it was fundamentally a book about and for children. But over the course of the next 10 years and the next six novels, Harry Potter and his friends grew up, alongside the series fans who first latched on to Rowling’s work in grade school. Characters fumbled through teenage romances. Friendships formed and collapsed. Physical and emotional torture and outright murder became fundamental elements of the series. And as Harry himself endured an angry, troubled adolescence, the story’s stakes kept rising around him.
The new movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first full-length Harry Potter franchise story that leaves behind childhood adventure and teen angst, and expressly deals with adult characters living in an adult world. And there has to be some appeal in that for longtime series fans: in theory, it’s a sign that the series has continued to mature with them. With the original Potter books, Rowling created a vast and elaborate setting, but then had to bend it all around the narrative needs of one Chosen One stereotype. Harry’s fight against the evil wizard Voldemort affected their entire magical world, but putting a teenage magic-school dropout at the forefront of a vast and complicated war often meant reducing the Potterverse to one hero, his friends, and a useless backdrop of frightened bystanders and fumbling, impotent bureaucrats. The effort to keep Rowling’s world Harry-sized kept making it seem smaller and dimmer than it should be. Fantastic Beasts, which takes place decades earlier and moves the action from Britain to New York, should be the series’ chance to move out of Harry’s skinny shadow.
And to some degree, it does. Fantastic Beasts is a cluttered film, for various reasons — one is the wearying effort, so common to current franchise films, to set up a huge ongoing narrative at the expense of the current one. Fantastic Beasts is planned as the first of a five-film series, and it’s easy to see all the loose threads being thrown out for later films to pick up. But the movie, scripted by Rowling and directed by Harry Potter film series veteran David Yates, often feels like it’s overcrowded because Rowling is celebrating the freedom to expand her setting past the borders of Harry Potter’s experience and his immediate story needs.
Eddie Redmayne starts as Newt Scamander, a shy, fumbling, potentially on-the-spectrum Brit visiting 1926 New York City on a mission involving his fascination with magical animals. (The series sprung out of a charity spinoff chapbook Rowling wrote in 2001, as a fictional “magizoology” textbook used by Harry Potter and his classmates. It’s a taxonomy of fictional magical critters, several of which crop up here.) Newt wants to attend his magical suitcase full of CGI creatures in peace, but a chance encounter with non-magical wannabe baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, in comedy-relief-witness mode) and anti-magic fanatic Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton, in possibly her most simplistic, thankless role ever) sets some of his charges free, and he has to recapture them all, pokémon-style.
His magical-critter fetch-quest is fairly slapsticky and predictable, mostly an excuse for comic bungling and chase sequences. But it’s a relatively minor element in the story, which also brings in disgraced magical investigator Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, looking perpetually on the edge of tears), her mind-reading flapper sister Queenie (Alison Sudol, molling it up Chicago-style), a shady magical enforcer (Colin Farrell), and a non-magical politician and his family, who would be inconsequential if one of them wasn’t played by Jon Voight. Add in Mary Lou Barebone’s badly abused orphan horde (including We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Ezra Miller, in a hideously embarrassing haircut that constitutes child abuse on its own) and another fumbling, impotent bureaucracy (led with stately gravity by Selma’s Carmen Ejogo), and Fantastic Beasts starts feeling exactly like its source material: more an encyclopedia of story elements than an actual story.
And not all of those story elements fit together, conceptually or tonally. This is a movie that centers equally on vicious beatings of affection-starved children, and a sort of cute, gold-hungry magical platypus (called a Niffler) that wants to cram all the world’s valuables into its bottomless flesh-pouch. Beasts features a uniquely horrible and personal form of execution, and also Redmayne honking, rolling around, and wiggling his ass at the camera in a mating dance aimed at luring in an escaped glowing rhino-beast. (An Erumpent, for those in the know.) It’s not just a serious adventure with comic elements, or vice versa: it’s a grab bag of world-building wonder and awkward absurdist humor, with violence and childish giddiness tossed around in equal measure. It reads as though Rowling’s version of an adult world is still dependent on the patronage of kids. In other words, it’s a standard blockbuster movie, trying to grab adults and children at the same time, and not entirely serving either audience.
But the critical savaging Fantastic Beasts has been getting doesn’t give it enough credit for the way it resets the Potterverse’s expectations, dialing back the darkness and establishing a new normal that leaves time for the things that were always fun and exciting about this world. Beasts’ CGI menagerie tends to look a bit cheap and garish, but at its best — as with a golden, six-winged thunderbird that becomes the movie’s most majestic element, or in a show-offy speakeasy sequence that feels like a lost sidebar from Who Framed Roger Rabbit — the film brings back the anything-can-happen fantasy element and the sense of scope and surprise that initially made the Harry Potter stories compelling.
And while Fantastic Beasts’ erratic leaps between murderous gravity and childish silliness are distracting, one thing is consistent: the characters here can be silly, broad, naïve, bungling, or just one-dimensional, but a surprising number of them are in some form of pain. There’s a broad, performative sort of melancholy running through this movie, and it touches on so many of the characters. Newt just wants to be let alone and protect his beastly friends, and the world won’t leave him in peace — and while Redmayne’s performance is tic-ridden and goofy, it’s also appealingly forlorn. Porpentina is perpetually struggling to do the right thing, even when she’s constantly being punished or overlooked for it. Jacob has been admitted into a world of wonders he can’t participate in or even hold on to. Mary Lou knows there’s evil in the world, but she can’t get the world to listen to her. For all the film’s childish elements, it showcases a great deal of suffering and injustice, and the feeling that institutions are indifferent and oppressive, and only individual action counts.
These are familiar, simple, black-and-white Rowling tropes, just like the awkward bureaucracy (a trope that even came into her first adult book, The Casual Vacancy) and the obsession with transformation. And the wish-fulfillment simplicity of these ideas seems destined to perpetually leave the Potterverse in an awkward twilight between adolescence and maturity, between an acknowledgment that the world is complicated, and a fantasy that it can be fixed with a little frantic, desperate heroism. For all that Fantastic Beasts finally lets the Potterverse enter an adult world, it still hasn’t fully come to grips with adult decision-making and adult challenges. But when it isn’t embracing whimsy, merchandising potential, or buffoonery, it edges just a little closer to that goal. If nothing else, it’s fun to see that there’s a Potterverse outside Harry Potter himself. His world has always been big enough to sustain other stories. Finally, it has a chance to.