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'Fantastic Beasts' creates a Potter universe that feels eerily like our own

By Maddie Flavin     12/1/16 11:05am

In the summer of 2011, audiences prepared to say their final goodbyes to Harry Potter, the cultural phenomenon that shaped a generation’s values. But, in today’s reboot-driven cinema-scape, we know that franchises are never finished for good. Five years after the groundbreaking original franchise’s final chapter, fans get to return to that wondrously magical world in the spinoff prequel “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Introducing an entirely new cast of characters that expands one of the most captivating universes ever conceived. The film, penned by J.K. Rowling herself, brings back the imagination-igniting spirit of her original stories, copositioning it with disturbingly relevant themes of identity repression and fear of the unknown.

In 1926, British magizoologist Newt Scamander arrives in Manhattan, carrying no ordinary briefcase. With its contents, a diverse ecosystem of magical creatures, Newt hopes to spread awareness of these previously undiscovered species, all of whom he cares for as though they were his own children. But his visit to America comes at a dangerous time, as the country’s wizarding community struggles to flourish clandestinely while Muggle fundamentalists blame magic for a series of mysteriously terrifying occurrences. When Muggle Jacob Kowalski accesses Newt’s briefcase, the cargo’s subsequent escape requires Newt, along with Jacob and witch sisters Queenie and Tina Goldstein, to find them before enemies from both sides start a culture war.

As the actor to whom the Potter universe torch has been passed, Eddie Redmayne takes his duties seriously enough for a smooth transition to this new adventure. The Academy Award-winner depicts Newt as a shy yet fiercely intelligent scientist who knows how it feels to be the misunderstood outsider. This explains Newt’s deep love for the creatures of his life’s work and suspends disbelief, critical at a time when audiences know too well how the CGI game works. Katherine Waterston, as demoted Magical Congress worker Tina Goldstein, exemplifies Rowling’s knack for writing complex women. Seeking redemption for the misdeed that left her deskbound, Tina rediscovers her inner power through Newt’s passion and drive. She’s not a sidekick — she’s her own leading lady. Alison Sudol is as bubbly as champagne as the joyous Queenie, a gorgeous mind reader. Dan Fogler plays Jacob Kowalski, who is swept up in the remarkable adventure by happenstance and becomes the audience surrogate, as he acclimates to a new world that he feels increasingly gravitated toward. The supporting ensemble, from Samantha Morton as the gratingly narrow-minded Mary Lou to Ezra Miller’s dangerously repressed Credence, are equally captivating in their performances.

Underneath the surface, Rowling’s “Potter” always grappled with major societal issues, and this carries over into “Fantastic Beasts.” It’s clear from the film’s earliest scene, as flashes of news stories with headlines such as “Anti-wizard sentiment increases,” that this fictional world has hard-hitting statements to make about our real world. The actions and rhetoric of Mary Lou and her cronies feel eerily akin to those of the Westboro Baptist Church. Just like the TSA have a threat level scale at the airports so does the Magical Congress, where Tina works. The fear of discovery and the stifling covertness on the part of the wizarding world becomes palpable too. In Newt’s world, identity repression becomes a real monster that wreaks devastating damage on the city. It’s a dangerously tangible metaphor for our times that keeps repeating itself over and over again.

They say that if you’re going to rehash a story, you have to have a good reason for it. “Fantastic Beasts” may be another byproduct of our never-ending-story media world, but it’s a surprisingly timely politically tinged narrative that never forgets its past while looking ahead to the possibilities of the uncertain future.

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