Just when you thought J.K. Rowling hadn’t milked those gloriously prosperous udders of the Harry Potter royalty cow enough, the prolific writer pulls a volte-face on that “no more Harry Potter stories” rigmarole and launches gazillion-dollar magnets on our asses. First, there’s the acclaimed Potter spin-off play The Cursed Child and now, we have the live-action feature Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, which I’ve gathered has swollen into a five film franchise. Talk about profitable business. Warner Bros be popping and pimping for Madam Rowling is bringing them boys and girls fresh dough to survive the Trumpocalypse for the next five years. Since Disney’s dragging every fairy goddamn tale back into the Hollywood block and Marvel’s threatened to release superhero movies every year until we all die, WB HQ is making sure our eyeballs won’t detach from the wizarding world as there’s an entire Potter universe to mine box-office gold from.
Well, doubts be gone, as it only took 133 mins and good weave of old Rowling magic for me to do a sharp reversal on that written paragraph above, obliterating my initial snark and cynicism to be fully convinced of the myriad delights Fantastic Beasts bring to our world right now. The film itself neither feels truly necessary nor completely arbitrary, but sits somewhere in between as a welcome addition to the Potter lore. What is more, it’s a gladdening escapade in this dark, dark times. As a piece of entertainment, it delivers in spades that old sense of adventure, a good-natured magical romp that provides a sweeping beguilement which the cinematic medium is built for. While it suitably exhilarates in places, it also never forgets darkness – that possibility of corruption and inhumanity around every corner.
Fantastic Beasts neither feels truly necessary nor completely arbitrary, but sits somewhere in between as a welcome addition to the Potter lore. What is more, it’s a gladdening escapade in this dark, dark times.
With all the whizz-bang bedazzlement of magical creatures that steal the show, it might be easy to overlook the deft socio-political commentary Rowling is trying to nail down here. Fantastic Beasts is an old-fashioned caper in spirit (and one that’s also thoroughly modern) but at its core is a timely allegory on our divided society. Magizoologist Newt Sacamander (Eddie Redmayne playing himself, or at least a variety of himself) laments the human species as “the most dangerous creatures on the planet”, while the non-magic community called “no-maj” (no magic, geddit) are hell-bent on persecuting those who are different, with the Salem Witch Hunt 2.0 looming over this vastly rendered pre-Depression Era Jazz Age New York. And then there’s Jon Voight standing in as a Trump-like figure yelling at witches, but they could be blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals or women for all he care.
Pacifism, tolerance and respect for all species – magical creatures or not – have always been Rowling’s credo of existence and it’s all writ large in Fantastic Beasts. The film’s main villain, one that unleashes havoc all over the city, is a persecuted figure, a deeply repressed being forged from fear-mongering, hate and blind obedience. Dark forces, in Rowling’s view, come from intolerance and the inability to see past differences and there couldn’t be a timelier message than that. No matter how much comedic frolic and unnecessary attempts at romance that prevent the film from shoring up to Great Cinema status, plus the sight of the slightly insipid Redmayne mumbling his way through the film, followed by a weirdly out-of-place Johnny Depp cameo appearance that threaten to trivilise the show, there’s Rowling’s fully lived-in world where the inherent goodness of flawed yet courageous individuals fight and win over the forces of bigotry and fanaticism. With this in mind, I’d happily let Rowling milk that good cow any time.