Cinematic prequels have had a bad rap ever since George Lucas decided to hang the eagerly awaited, but much-maligned, Star Wars prequels on the scrawny shoulders of a whiny young Jedi named Anakin. And though the Star Wars franchise has recovered nicely since joining forces with Jedi Master J.J. Abrams and the House of Mouse, even casual Harry Potter fans jokingly referred to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as the prequel that shall not be named. Or maybe that was just at my house. In any case, I’m happy to report that the Harry Potter prequel is not just great, but is actually utterly fantastic in the truest sense of the word.
More a wizarding world spin-off than a straight-up prequel, Beasts follows the adventures of acclaimed Magizoologist Newt Scamander (Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne) – who Potterheads will recognize as the fictional author of the Hogwarts textbook, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – as he seeks to track down some of said beasts after they escape from his enchanted suitcase during an unexpectedly-long layover in 1920’s New York City. Accidentally switching suitcases with poor, struggling “No-Maj” (the American term for muggle, which is J.K. Rowling-speak for anyone who is born of two non-magical parents and does not have magical abilities) Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), Newt must first locate his missing suitcase and then enlist a gobsmacked Jacob’s help in finding the beasts that normally reside inside it.
Complicating matters further is the fact that the Manhattan Newt finds himself suddenly immersed in is far less tolerant of magic than the muggles across the pond are. In fact, anti-magic sentiments are so strong in New York when Scamander arrives that most American witches and wizards have been driven underground by the hateful rhetoric of fear-mongering fanatics like the New Salem Philanthropic Society (aka the Second Salemers), who’s stated goal is to completely eradicate witchcraft in the United States.
Aided in his mission by the enchanting (both literally and figuratively) Goldstein sisters, Tina (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Transparent’s Alison Sudol) who both work at the stateside version of the Ministry of Magic, the Magical Congress of the United States of America or MACUSA, Newt has his work cut out for him. Especially when MACUSA’s ferociously determined Director of Security, Percival Graves (played to the oily hilt by Colin Farrell), gets wind of the situation.
Directed by Harry Potter veteran David Yates (who had a rare misfire with last year’s God-awful The Legend of Tarzan) Beasts was written for the screen by first-time screenwriter/Potter mastermind J.K. Rowling, and the truly magical new offshoot of the Potterverse that the pair have conjured up in nothing short of spectacular. Seriously, this is cinematic world building at its least cynical and very best. And while hardcore Potterheads will surely relish in the film’s many sly references to the earlier books and films – especially the fact that Newt emerges as the first truly badass character from Hogwarts’ woefully-overlooked Hufflepuff house! – even newbies will delight in the humor, pathos and heartfelt depth of each and every one of these amazing new characters. And as far as villains go, Farrell’s Machiavellian Graves and the Second Salemers’ aptly-named Mary Lou Barebone (played by Oscar-nominee Samantha Morton) give Lord Voldermort a serious run for his money.
But Beasts’ real breakout star is Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) who elevates conflicted LGBTQ angst to darkly compelling heights with his incendiary performance as Barebone’s misunderstood stepson, Credence. Rowling has dabbled in pro-LGBTQ concerns before in the original Potter series – most famously by claiming, matter-of-factly, in 2007 that Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay – but by using Credence’s struggle to come to terms with his deeply suppressed magical gifts as a non-too-subtle metaphor for his emerging homosexuality, Rowling takes this very timely conversation to a whole new level onscreen, and in a blockbuster film no less!
Originally planned as a trilogy, Rowling and company confirmed recently that Beasts is, in fact, the first of five planed Newt Scamander adventures. And if they’re all as fantastic as this one is, then I think we can safely say that, at least for now, the big studio prequel curse has finally been lifted.
Now playing on select Delta, American, Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Air New Zealand and ANA flights worldwide, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is also available via streaming at Amazon Video, iTunes and Google Play.