As the newest film set in the Harry Potter universe and J.K. Rowling’s screenplay debut, Fantastic Beasts has gotten a lot of hype, and quite a bit of criticism too for too much detail, plot holes, unclear motivations, and uneven pacing. My own kids and I were a bit confused when we went the first time, but that didn’t stop both of the kids from seeing it again with friends.
It is a visually arresting film, and I enjoyed the experience of watching it. With the twisted cities of Doctor Strange still in my mind’s eye from the week before, the scenes of mayhem in old New York in Fantastic Beasts made an impressive counterpoint. I know the Harry Potter timeline and universe pretty well and so I also appreciated the world-building and the background to the more well known events from the HP books and movies.
Thematically, much of this debate about “craft” may be interesting, but beside the point. In this film Rowling returns to a theme that may ultimately define her body of work: the plight of wronged, abused children, the incompetent and/or evil adults who fail them, and the others who try to make it right. In the modern HP timeline, Voldemort/Tom Riddle came out of such a situation. In this film, and in other more recent work (notably, A Casual Vacancy) adults explicitly manipulate and use children to their own ends, and end up not only destroying the children’s innocence but unleashing a chaotic evil upon the world that can no longer be controlled.
This theme is rich, but sometimes, in Rowling’s hands, too simple–especially when the adults become caricatures. Newt Scamander is a worthy and well-meaning hero but IMO he needs more to do and to learn before this series can do justice to its ambition. The children are watching.