This review originally appeared on Matthew's Blog.
In 1926 a former Hogwarts student, Newt Scamander travels to New York with a case full of magical creatures only to find himself pulled into the strange world of magic in the United States, which is very different than Britain. The Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) is embroiled in a situation that threatens the safety of the wizarding community as well as the No-Majs (Muggles). It also jeopardizes the International Statute of Secrecy, risking the exposure of the wizarding world in America. Newt and his beasts may be just the thing needed to help bring to light the true forces at work.
Us vs Them
The Magical community has been hidden from the rest of the world since 1692 when the International Confederation of Wizards enacted the International Statute of Secrecy to protect itself from Muggles or No-Majs. In America it has created an even stricter divide between the two worlds as witches and wizards are forbidden to marry non-magic folk. It's created a sense of superiority in the magical community which Tina clearly show when she says to Newt, "Why would I want to marry him?", pointing at Jacob, a No-Maj that has unwittingly become entangled in the wizarding world. The No-Maj world is no better. Mary Lou Barebone who runs an orphanage and the New Salem Philanthropic Society, works to indoctrinate the children she "cares" for and the people of New York of the dangers go witches and wizards in their midst. There is a real sense of tension that is palpable as each side cloisters in it's group, spreading fear of the other.
The movie, in subtle ways, slowly undermines this idea of Us vs Them through the character of Jacob. In America, a No-Maj is immediately obliviated (a memory charm) so that they do not remember what they have seen, yet circumstances in the film make that impossible. Jacob and Newt form a friendship, learn from one another as they share their worlds. Jacob also has a major impact on Tina and Queenie Goldstein who, for the first time in their lives, get to spend significant time with someone from the "other side". It's beautiful to see the fear of the unknown vanish as communication leads to the awareness that they're not that different. In the real world where this happens every day, the message is clear, true knowledge of the "other" side only comes though interaction, communication and an open mind.
Newt loves the magical creatures of the world, the ones that people have discounted or worse, hunted down because of fear and misunderstanding. His main goal in studying, recording and publishing his book is to educate the magical community about the importance of these creatures, their benefits and to encourage their safeguarding. It's interesting to see how the themes from the magical vs non-magical communities parallel with the magical community's interaction with magical beasts. When fear, misinformation and lack of education drive people, the consequences to ourselves and the world around us can be devastating. The film, in both places, drives home the importance of cultivating a climate of learning, education and stewardship.
This is the first of five movies in the Fantastic Beasts series, written specifically for the screen by J.K. Rowling. There is a really strength to this since there are no books to compare it to leaving the audience free to enjoy the film for it's own sake. The movie does a good job of laying the foundations for the world of wizardry in this time period as well as what's to come in the series. The cast is outstanding, with the relationship between Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein and Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski being a true highlight. James Newton Howard's score is good, even if it never reached the heights of Williams and the production value, character design and world building is, well, magical. The film nicely begins it's journey to telling the history of the Harry Potter universe that we got hints of in the previous series, making it a wonderful addition and expansion to the world, yet, at the same time, it stands on it's own. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is rated 4 out of five Bowtruckles.