I’ll answer the question posed in the title right now: it honestly depends. With several exceptions, the most anticipated films set to come out in the next few years are associated with Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and Transformers. Several of these movies have been fantastic triumphs that explore the human condition in a way few popular movies have managed to since. Others are simply an excuse to watch things explode on a big screen. Now the Harry Potter universe joins their ranks.
The question about brand extension is especially relevant to Harry Potter, given that very few people asked for this specific movie. When The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 came out, I assumed the film industry was finished with the Wizarding World for some time. The movies had reached the end of the books. The final scene at Platform nine and three quarters played out almost exactly the way I envisioned it when I read it, right down to the music.
It was a fantastic ending to a record-breaking series, which begs a question: Why make a movie about a completely unknown character set in the same universe who loses a bunch of animals in 1920s New York? I’ll answer that after I talk about the plot.
It turns out the ‘20s was a terrifying time for witches and wizards everywhere. The shadow of Gellert Grindelwald, the most powerful dark wizard at the time, lurks in the backdrop as havoc is wreaked around the world, and now, in 1927, strange and mysterious things are happening in New York City.
We follow two interwoven stories throughout the movie. The first is of Newt Scamander, the Wizarding equivalent of Charles Darwin, who has stopped briefly in New York towards the end of extensive travels around the world. However, a mix-up with Jacob (a No-Mag, the American term for a muggle) leads to Scamander’s false arrest by ex-auror Tina Goldstein, the loss of his case and even more of his creatures. With the American wizard’s strict government aware of his unregistered presence, Scamander, Tina, her sister Queenie, and Jacob must avoid them to recover his specimens before they expose the existence of witches and wizards.
Meanwhile, Percival Graves, Auror and Director of Magical Security, is tracking down the source of magical destruction around the city. He believes that Credence, a teenage orphan associated with a witch-hunting propaganda cult, has information about an Obscurus, a powerful parasite that manifests itself in young witches and wizards who repress their abilities. After escalating incidents leads to several deaths, Graves gives up on Credence’s abilities and blames Scamander for the incident, only to learn shortly after that Credence is the Obscurus. In a fit of rage, Credence unleashes the Obscurus and terrorizes the city.
Scamander and Graves confront each other indirectly over Credence. Scamander and Tina work together to calm him down, believing that Scamander can remove the Obscurus from Credence. Graves, however, attempts to convince Credence that he can help him more than Scamander. It all comes to naught, however, as every member of magical law enforcement in New York descend upon Credence, destroying him.
When Graves declares his true intention of releasing the Obscurus to expose the magical world, Scamander figures out Graves isn’t who he says he is. With a quick cast of ‘revelio’ and assistance from one of his creatures, Graves’ disguise disappears, revealing the dark Grindelwald in his place. With Grindelwald under arrest, Scamander uses his creatures to erase the incident of the Obscurus from the minds of the No-Mag population, including, to Queenie’s dismay, Jacob, and leaves for London.
If the lengthy description didn’t give it away, this is a busy movie, and there are minor plot threads I didn’t even bother touching. It’s setting up a franchise and introducing us to unfamiliar aspects of a beloved universe with swaths of adoring and unforgiving fans. Which brings me back to a question posed earlier: of all the topics in the Wizarding World, why this one?
As it turns out, this spinoff is more authentic than any of the other Harry Potter films. We’ve never met any of these characters before. There’s no opportunity to say ‘that’s not how he was in the books’ or ‘it was better in the books.’ The originality makes it much easier to lose yourself in the 1920s aesthetic and enjoy Scamander stammering awkwardly as the introverted explorer slowly learns to open up or marvel at Graves’ hypnotic focus as he executes his duties with precision.
The lessons this story teaches are fairly obvious ones, but the stories of these characters makes the lessons so resonant. The controlling nature of the wizarding government draws some parallels to the discussions about government control of its citizens, keeping Queenie and Jacob apart from a burgeoning attraction that pains them throughout the film. The Obscurus sends a blatant message about the risks of hiding your true self, and you can see through Credence’s toxic circumstances why someone could so willingly repress who he or she really is (and the dangers of doing so).
The biggest reason this movie works so well is because of the time period. Not only does this movie tell a fairly succinct story in and of itself, the reveal of Graves being Grindelwald in disguise opens up a trove of untold history in the Wizarding World. After all, Grindelwald was touted as the most powerful dark wizard of modern times before Voldemort rose to power. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, since we know so little about this period of Wizarding history.
I went into this movie with a lot of skepticism. No one I knew asked for a movie about an obscure author of an in-universe textbook. It seemed like a push from Warner Brothers to milk more money out of the Harry Potter name, even if JK Rowling, one of the most authentic and generous women in the entertainment industry, wrote the screenplay. Its deeply constructed world and slightly less deep emotional well made the film far more enjoyable than I anticipated. Even though spinoffs and brand extension are a plague to many moviegoers out there, Fantastic Beasts is a fine example of how to do it properly.
If you’ve seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!
I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!