Five Spoiler-Free Reasons Potterphiles will Love Fantastic Beasts

14869-fantastic-beasts-one-sheet-1It’s a foregone conclusion that Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will make a Gringotts-vault full of money this weekend and beyond, meaning that large numbers of people who are casual or totally uninitiated Potter watchers and readers will come out in droves to see the awesome CG artistry and to enjoy some nice escapism. Most of these folks are not terribly worried about symbolism and structure, as they just want to enjoy themselves at the movies. They will have a great time. They will love it. They will eat lots of popcorn. They will gasp and laugh and cheer. Those of us who do fret about things like symbolism and structure, who have read the Hogwarts saga repeated times, and who are seeking something deeper than  the extra-large tub of butter-substitute soaked popcorn at the cineplex will also find plenty to please in the adventures of Newt Scamander and his critters.

In the coming weeks, as more folks get to see the film, and we don’t have to tiptoe so much around spoilers, we will dig in more deeply to the plot points and structure of the new film, examining both strengths and weaknesses, making predictions about future films, and weaving in our usual deep-mining insights. But, in the meantime, here are  five aspects (since there will be five films) of the new movie that are sure to delight those of us who want more than a couple of hours of distraction and some thrilling special effects. Without letting any nifflers, er, cats, out of the bag, here are some reasons to love the new movie, for those of us who have already graduated from Hogwarts with full marks on our “N.E.W.T.s ”

  1. Newt (the wizard, not the test)

If we hadn’t already guessed it from the previews, Eddie Redmayne‘s Newt Scamander is an absolute delight. What may most delight Potterphiles is his duck-footed walk, reminiscent of the textual descriptions of Krum  who is much more graceful on a broom. Like Krum, Newt is a guy who is very good at his specialty, but, out of his element, is often awkward.  Also, it is not surprising that Newt walks like a duck, since he does better with animals than with people.

Part of Redmayne’s fantastic, wide-eyed portrayal is his absolute command of this depiction of a fellow far more at home with creatures not of his species. When Newt is around humans, magical or muggle, he is quiet and awkward, clearly unsure if he has just said the right thing, not sure how to interact with people and certain that he “annoys” them. But when he is with his creatures, he is a different person, self-assured,  nurturing, overflowing with information and knowledge, and confident: a fabulous mash-up of Noah, Dr. Doolittle, Tarzan, and Steve Irwin. Though he only puts on his Hufflepuff scarf late in the film, he is always true to his house with his accepting nature and general sense of equilibrium. He is both likable and mysterious enough to make us eager to follow him to further films.

  1. A Bag full of Tricks, and Billywigs, and Occamys, and Diricawls, and ….

Of course, as Emily  has mentioned, the creatures are a major selling point for film goers and will set off a marketing frenzy of stuffed animals and Legos, but they are also a delight for Potterphiles, as some of them feature prominently in the books but have not, until now, made it into the films. The Nifflers and Bowtruckles from Order of the Phoenix‘s  Care of Magical Creatures lessons, the Erumpet whose horn is a plot device in Deathly Hallows, and the murtlap whose pickled tentacles are used on Harry’s and Lee’s hands after Umbridge detentions (and later in Fred and George’s Skivving Snackboxes) — they all get to shine (snort, burrow, etc.) in the new film. Our knowledge of the creatures only makes the film’s use of them more delightful, from recalling Hagrid’s warning about the dangers of nifflers to one’s domestic peace to recognizing the thunderbird’s connections to the phoenix (the place and the bird).

Seeing the characters interact with these creatures that we’ve only met in the books, and that we might have missed in the film adaptations, is delightful and is part of what brings us fully into this world, which is at once different and familiar

  1. Speaking the Language

One of the reasons Newt may be such a charismatic character for Potterphiles is that, while watching this film, we are mirroring his experience of being a tourist in a place with basically the same language, magical or not, but having to navigate unfamiliar customs, slang, and terrain.  The world of this film is a place that speaks the language we already know, so there is no need to explain the function of spells like “Accio” and “Alohamora”; instead, we can simply step right into this world, already comfortable with the vocabulary. We also already understand and accept the “machinery” of the wizarding world: people can apparate from place to place, household appliances function of their own accord, creatures might be found in people’s pockets, suitcases can, of course, be bigger inside than outside. Because we come to this story with our willing suspension of disbelief  already totally engaged, we can jump right in, already armed with some of the tools we need to navigate this world.

However, like Newt, we may know about the place we are visiting, but we still have to fill in our gaps of knowledge. Though Newt knows about American wizards and their customs, some of which he clearly finds quaint, antiquated, or downright ridiculous, he obviously hasn’t met many actual Americans, and he has to learn slang like “no-maj” instead of Muggle, while seeing first-hand how another culture copes with magic and co-existence, and while dealing with prejudices against his beloved beasts.

This wonderful balance between the familiar and the fresh is part of what makes the film so effective and so delightful. Like tourists in a place that speaks our native language, we can communicate and even blend in to a degree that makes it easy to immerse ourselves, but we will still find surprises around each corner, and we may have to rethink some of our assumptions.

  1. Something under the Surface

There is a wonderful scene in the film in which the frozen river glows from underneath, revealing magical and mysterious goings-on afoot in the Big Apple. That scene reminds us why so many of us have been reading, writing about, and digging into the Hogwarts adventures for the last 20 years: there is a whole world of meaning below the surface of these stories, continuing to reveal its treasures to us as we revisit. The film also has a remarkable degree of symbolic and structural   value that we’ll be exploring further in the weeks to come. Without spoiling any of the details, it is clear to see Rowling’s deft ability to deliver deeper meaning beneath the surface of a rollicking good time. Her trademark twists and turns are here,  undistorted by adaptation by someone other than herself. The only danger for true Potterphiles is that we might figure out a few things in advance, rather than enjoying the ride the first time, because we know the artist, and we know the way she rowls…er, rolls.  As in the books, the twists and surprises are well-constructed, and because this text began as a film, and is not an adaptation like the eight previous films, many of those reveals and twists work much better than they did when we actors and directors were trying to make something work on the screen that was originally designed for the page.

There are plenty of potent symbols  and themes woven in, as we’ve come to expect in this universe, and the careful viewer will catch sight of more than a few that connect to the stories we already know, from colors to animals to the complex and other painful relationships of parents and children that have always permeated Rowling’s world.

But this movie also does something else we’ve always loved about the Potter stories: though it is carefully planned, meticulously layered, and rife with meaning, it does not take itself too seriously. There are wonderful comic moments that, as in the better funny moments in the book, provide welcome comic relief without stooping to the ridiculous. From the hilarious reactions and physical comedy of the incomparable Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski to the humorous high jinks of the kleptomaniac niffler, the movie delivers plenty of good, clean laughs,  something often lacking in the modern cinema.

  1. The Magic of a Good Children’s Story

Probably the most important reason we Potterphiles can love this film is that it is, perhaps more than any of the others, magic. It is not just the magic of making stuff happen when you wave your wand, the magic that so delights the most wonderful Muggle in the USA, Jacob. Instead, it is  the magic I saw and heard happen when, as the big gray Warner-Brother logo came across the screen, and the music, just for a second (15 tenths of a second, actually; I checked on Spotify), twinkled with the familiar “Hedwig’s Theme” before shifting into the film’s distinct score; I looked over at my children, who had never seen a Potter film in the theater before, and I saw real magic on their enchanted faces. I heard around me echoed my own gasps of  delight at the mention of familiar names or the sight of familiar symbols, like a whiff of Grandma’s baking taking us back to our childhoods. 

When a bit of mustard on Tina’s face is wiped away with a familiar statement about having something on one’s nose, a significant portion of the audience chuckled about what that interaction might portend for the future, displaying that the real magic in these stories is the magic that makes us at once parents and children. Most of the people in the theater with us were, I noticed, adults. Since were in a college town, obviously many of them had grown up with Harry. Others, like myself and my husband, came to these stories as adults and then put our children on Platform 9 3/4, thrilled to take them on a journey that we ourselves had loved and which had changed us.

Unlike the previous stories in this world, stories which revolve around children and feature adults in ancillary roles, Fantastic Beasts actually includes very few children. Newt, Queenie, Jacob, and Tina are all adults, as are nearly all of the people with whom they interact, but then again, most of us who love these books are adults. As C.S. Lewis famously said, a children’s story that can be read and enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. Since the Wizarding World has always been a place of good children’s stories, it is not surprising that this movie embraces both adult characters and themes while retaining the heart of the children’s story we all already know.

There are, of course, many other aspects of this film that we Hogwarts faculty and alumni see as its strong points (again, I chose five because of the number of movies. Five will be important, I think. Notice the first group of people you see in the film). Do keep it spoiler-free on the comments, because we don’t have to see this movie to know what happens when we let nifflers out of the bag….

Speak Your Mind