Given how successful the Harry Potter books and films were (and are), it wasn’t a surprise that Warner Bros. found a way to tell more stories in what’s now known as the Wizarding World. What’s interesting, though, is that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is not only developing these new stories herself, but taking advantage of her position in this world to tell these stories through what for her is a new medium. Rather than following the template of the Harry Potter stories, where Rowling wrote the books and another person wrote the screenplays for the film adaptations, Rowling herself is writing the stories and screenplays for what is presumably the Fantastic Beasts series, giving her more room for the films to tell exactly the story she wants to tell. And if Rowling earned anything from the Harry Potter books, it’s the trust of her audience when it comes to this world.
In 1926, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is wreaking havoc across Europe. British wizard Newt Scamander, however, is on his way to New York City as he’s conducting research for his book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. When Newt mixes up his suitcase with one belonging to No-Maj (the American term for Muggle) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), though, some of the beasts inside Newt’s suitcase escape and begin to run wild in the city. Newt and Jacob end up teaming up with Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an ex-auror who thinks that catching Newt and his beasts will lead to her being accepted again by the Magical Congress of the United States (MCUSA). Meanwhile, head juror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is working over a troubled young man named Credence (Ezra Miller) to try and find a young wizard who may be releasing a dark force of terror over the city.
In establishing this new world, there are a number of plots running through the movie. Rowling does an admirable job juggling them, and she creates a slew of new characters who are certainly endearing. That being said, the relationships between the characters don’t fully form, in large part because of the juggling that’s otherwise going on. There are a pair of romances that Rowling tries to set up, for example – one between Newt and Tina, another between Jacob and Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) – that aren’t given enough time to grow organically, particularly compared to the slow burn of the relationships in the Harry Potter books. Graves, meanwhile, is a solid antagonist for the characters, but it’s hard to invest in the character the way he’s presented in blips throughout the film.
That being said, there is one really solid bit of character setup that comes from the film: the friendship between Newt and Jacob. Jacob, like Harry Potter, is a newcomer, and works as an audience surrogate. But unlike Harry, Jacob doesn’t possess magic in him, so his sense of wonder is different. And that sense of wonder is key. Jacob may be shocked by what he sees, but he embraces it, unlike the group railing against magic known as the Second Salemers. Credence is the adopted son of the leader of the Second Salemers (Samantha Morton), and he’s abused at her hands routinely even as he wants to be part of the magical world she tells him is wicked. It’s a dark storyline that will surely resonate with audiences, particularly LGBTQ viewers.
That element is key to what makes Rowling’s work…well, work. Her stories aren’t just about magic. They tackle real-world themes of acceptance and bigotry, and it looks like the social commentary that was part of the Harry Potter stories will be a key component of the foundation for the Fantastic Beasts series.
How that will play into future films, we’ll have to see. Rowling has announced that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the first of a five-part series of films, and while Newt will be back, there’s also the presence in the background of this film Grindelwald, who fans of the Harry Potter series know will come into conflict with Dumbledore down the road. How these two will intertwine remains to be seen, but Rowling has set a solid foundation here, and she’s certainly earned the trust to see where the story goes.