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film review: fantastic beasts and where to find them

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The year is 1926. Our new protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York from Britain with a suitcase full of magical creatures. But a dark force is terrorising the city, threatening to reveal the magical world to the ‘No Majs’ (read: American Muggles) and…. did someone just say Dumbledore, my god I’m so excited!

On my drive to the movies to see the newest instalment in J.K Rowling’s growing wizarding world, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I developed a split personality. On the one hand, I just wanted to scream “Merlin’s Beard! NEW HARRY POTTER!”, until I had to be sat down with a block of chocolate and a glass of fire whisky. But my other main emotion was a heavy sense of scepticism. I had been hurt before by Rowling, and was not quite ready to open my heart once more (I’m looking at you, Cursed Child!). With two polarising emotions swimming around inside me it is perhaps not surprising that my feeling after the film was one that sat in the middle of these two extremes.

The film is based on a short encyclopaedia-like book of the same name, which leaves behind the original Harry Potter characters, squeezing more money out of the franchise in a new spinoff. Watching this film, the desire to expand the franchise is blatantly clear – for one it is set in the US, bringing the wizarding world directly to the home of the franchise’s biggest fan base, and secondly it is set during the oh-so-stylish roaring twenties, a decade that is oh-so-hot-right-now with its Gatsby style and sass. Throw in a generous handful of magical beasts that can be merchandised and made to sit on my bookshelf next to my Hedwig doll and we are on to a financial winner.

The film is a good start to a franchise. It meanders around a bit; a plot is none existent for the first hour of the film and there are many loose threads to pick up later, but for her first screenplay Rowling deserves some credit. Fantastic Beasts must do a lot for its obsessive fans so focusing on world building is a solid move even if it leaves the story flat at times. The world we see is beautiful, the beasts are as fantastic as you would want, and there is a light-hearted silliness that pops up from time to time which brings back a certain magic lost in the very dark later Harry Potter films.

Yet Fantastic Beasts also has a darkness to it, which make it sit in between a children’s and an adult film. The anti-witchcraft group The Second Salem form one of the films darker themes. Rowling has said this screenplay was partly inspired by the rise of populism in today’s society, and the Second Salem organisation’s fear of the otherness of witchcraft appears to reflect this inspiration.

It seems that director David Yates, who also directed the final four Harry Potter Films, has not been able to determine who is watching his films. His fan base grew up alongside Harry Potter but are now adults. However, this is a fan culture who live with a heavy dowsing of nostalgia and so can handle childishness happily. The character Newt Scamander seems to be the personification of this feeling as an awkward but lovable adult acting with a wide-eyed adolescent innocence.

The Harry Potter franchise has opinionated fans that are largely encouraged by Rowling’s personal ethics, which seem staunchly based around equality for minorities and women. She gave us feminist Hermione Granger, who has turned into a real-world feminist icon in the form of actor Emma Watson. It was interesting to see how a new film would tackle the female characters it presents us. The two main female leads are magical law enforcer Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her sister, 1920s flapper-like character Queenie (Alison Sudol). For the most part these characters seem underwritten, and although strong willed we don’t get to see any of the depth behind their actions. The 1920s chauvinistic attitudes directed particularly at the character of Queenie do not aid in this development. By the end of the film both characters function largely as love interests, which I felt was an odd and far too obvious choice for a franchise that has an established feminist following. With Newt Scamander not leading future films, we can hope that a new bigger and brighter Hermione-type character will be revealed, allowing women in this world to be something more than characters for the male protagonists to fall in love with.

Also of concern for feminists, there has been a lot of talk over the last month about the casting of Johnny Depp in the film. Many Harry Potter fans have shared their rage on social media, stating Depp’s alleged abuse towards ex-wife Amber Heard should have meant he was not cast. Rowling and director Yates have since stated that they are pleased with the casting and are excited by what Depp will bring to his role. Can you base such a decision solely on acting ability? Despite Depp’s charges having been dropped, his casting so soon after the event whilst knowing that your main audience has been lapping up the feminist love Emma Watson has portrayed in her United Nations work makes Depp remain a problematic choice. We must wait for future films to see if the choice will backfire.

For now, I will sit and ponder in my old Gryffindor shirt feeling pleasantly satisfied to have wizards and witches in my life again. I may be reflecting on a wave of nostalgia which will turn me into an eternal adolescent, but it is ok I remember what Dumbledore said, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”— so I will try not to dwell for too long. If anyone wants to talk more about Fantastic Beasts I’ll be at the Leaky Cauldron.

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