Fantastic Beasts and How to Escape with Them
I’m on the older edge of the Harry Potter generation. I didn’t pick up the series until the spring of 2000. I was in my freshman year of high school, Goblet of Fire was going to come out that summer, and I wanted to see what the hype was all about. By Christmas, I owned the entire series as far as it existed at that point. I’d made my way through the series by checking it out from the library, but seeing those gorgeous hardbacks on my shelf and knowing I could go back to them whenever I wanted was comforting. I loved escaping to Hogwarts. It wasn’t a perfect fantasy land, but you knew everything was going to be okay. The costs might be high, but Harry was the Chosen One and he was going to defeat Voldemort.
So while I missed out on the feeling of growing up with Harry, Fantastic Beasts offered me a glimpse of what it must have felt like to see my peers navigate a magical world. Newt Scamander comes from the magical world we know, but stumbles into a new world that is both terrible and wonderful. We learn about magical America along with him—though some of us may have devoured the supplemental material on Pottermore, first.
If you’re looking for a Harry Potter movie, you may not like Fantastic Beasts. This is a grownup adventure, not a schoolboy romp.
However, if you’re looking for some realistic escapism now that we’re more than a week into the Darkest Timeline, maybe this is the movie you need. Magical America in the 1920s is painfully familiar. Draconian laws are enforced in the name of security. Zealots are out to destroy a misunderstood minority. A charismatic leader with ideas of racial supremacy rises in Europe and threatens America. But at least it was nice seeing an alternate America led by a woman (and a woman of color, too!) ninety years ago? J.K. Rowling couldn’t have possibly known who would have won the election when she was writing this screenplay, but it seems incredibly prescient now.
Newt Scamander stumbles into all this. He’s not the Chosen One like Harry. He’s a magizoologist, an environmentalist crossed with Dr. Doolittle that doesn’t go full PETA. (Y’know, living the #millennial dream of having a steady job that you find rewarding.) He starts the movie being dragged around by MACUSA, mostly in the person of Tina Goldstein, but by the end his magical creatures and his Hufflepuff empathy for others saves the day. Gryffindor bravery is important, I’m a proud bundle of Ravenclaw and Slytherin traits, but what the world needed then as it does now is the unflinching kindness and loyalty of Hufflepuffs.
I really want to talk about Jacob Kowalski, the No-Maj who unwittingly becomes one of the heroes, but it’s hard to do it without spoiling the movie. (But if you want to talk about him after you see the movie, hit me up. He’s my fave.) If Newt is the audience surrogate for Harry Potter fans, then Jacob is the surrogate for our friends that get dragged into the movie with us. We get to watch him discover the wizarding world as an adult, and his awe shows us that this world isn’t just for kids. After being exposed to the wonders that Newt keeps in his case, he and Newt have this exchange:
Jacob Kowalski: I don’t think I’m dreaming.
Newt Scamander: What gave it away?
Jacob Kowalski: I ain’t got the brains to make this up.
Neither do I, Jacob. But I am so glad that JK Rowling does. I am so ready for the next movie, even knowing now that the Fantastic Beasts series will show the rise of Grindelwald. It was a dark time, but my time feels pretty dark, too.
These days, the escapism I need is a world that looks like mine but still has joy and awe and wonder. Those things have escaped me, and I am just as invested in finding them again as any fantastic beast.