I wasn't particularly excited for this movie when it first hit theaters.
Harry Potter without Harry Potter? What's the point?
But Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them really surprised me. It's a serious prequel to the Harry Potter series, set in a completely different time period and a completely different country.
And as it turns out, the aspects that made me most skeptical turned out to be its biggest strength.
Harry Potter is schoolhouse drama. The school becomes less important and the canvas gets larger as the story goes on, but even the finale turns on the Battle of Hogwarts.
But these characters aren't kids. We're not watching them grow up, we don't have to sit through classes as a framing device, and the stakes are much higher, without any kind of omnipotent Dumbledore waiting in the wings to fix everything.
This is a grown up story with the same fairytale sensibility we fell in love with from the original books.
I think the best part is how Rowling built her new protagonist.
Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, is a perfect fusion of Harry, Ron and Hermione.
There's no "sidekick syndrome" to overcome, and there's no convenient A-student waiting to solve all his problems for him.
Newt really is smart enough to solve problems on his own, but he carries himself with Ron's gangly awkwardness, exploding into heroic motion when he needs to get something done.
He's brave, he's smart, and he's awkward, in all the right proportions for a loveable new hero.
The world sees his brother as the real hero, a war hero who only gets mentioned in passing, but it's easy to imagine Newt growing up in his shadow, collecting magical creatures to substitute for human friends.
He's instantly relatable in a way that Harry Potter was not. He's not a victim. He's not a legend, he's not a chosen one. Rowling stripped away all the things that annoyed people about Harry Potter and created a new hero that makes a lot more sense.
Newt's humanity makes his heroism believable, and his awkwardness makes him the perfect standin for all the kids, and adults, who are watching.
Redmayne's performance really shines here. There's a wonderful moment at the end when Newt pauses on the gangplank of a ship, after saying goodbye to Tina, his accidental adventuring partner who never quite rose to the level of love interest.
His body language says it all. Newt wants to turn around, blurt out his feelings and grab a kiss before he heads back across the sea - but he's just too shy.
A lesser movie would have had him turn around, but Newt stays true to his character and marches onto the ship, lingering just long enough for us to feel his pain.
Katherine Waterston is wonderful as the agent working for the American Ministry of Magic. Dan Fogler steals the show as an ordinary guy who gets swept up into the magical world and becomes a genuine companion and friend to the heroes.
They spend the entire movie threatening to erase his memory, a running "joke" that adds an undercurrent of sadness to a character that is used primarily for comic relief.
The world building here is top notch, as we see all the familiar characters from the Wizarding World remixed with an American flair. You get the sense that Rowling has grown as a storyteller, and David Yates is in full command of that story, as he directs his fifth film in this world.
Rowling revisits all her familiar themes here. We have an ominous dark wizard, introduced in newspaper headlines; well-meaning but meddlesome authority figures, ruining everything with bureaucracy and brute force; surprisingly competent adult wizards in full command of their powers; ubiquitous class conflict; and a broken young villain caught between tragedy and evil.
This seems to be the year for franchise remixes. Fantastic Beasts really is the Rogue One of Harry Potter movies, and I can actually serve that as a compliment.
Hardcore fans will be disappointed because there's no school, no teachers, and not a lot of overt fan service, but there's a lot to like here if you can put your expectations aside.
I started kind of lukewarm on the Harry Potter series and warmed up to it as the stories got darker and more mature, so I enjoyed seeing a real grownup adventure story told in this universe.
The heroes are stronger, the villains are smarter, the creatures are beautiful, and everything just makes sense.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and of course, on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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