Newt Scamander is the type of man who nonchalantly hides an entire zoo of exotic animals in his carry-on suitcase . . . except in this particular story, it’s 1926, Newt is a wizard, and he travels from London to New York City on a boat instead of an airplane. The U.S. Customs agent is as somber as ever, regardless of the decade, but fortunately for Newt and all of the animals involved, his little suitcase is magically good at hiding things.
Newt begins this story with wide-eyed wonder, taking in the sights of the city as if he’s enchanted, his magnificent zoo hanging cheerfully by his side. Far from being an exotic animal trafficker, Newt is precisely the opposite; he’s fighting to protect and care for these incredible and oft-misunderstood creatures. In his quest to return one of the animals to its home in the American West, Newt ends up chasing others of them all over New York City—and uncovers a dark evil at work in the process.
Fantastic Beasts is a childlike movie—in all of the best ways. Its cast of characters includes a host of colorful creatures full of grandeur and imagination and prankster antics. Its romance is the light-hearted, skip-in-your-step kind that leaves you laughing. And at one point, its magic manages to conjure magnificent strudel in the air and float it down gently in front of an astonished baker who can’t wait to dig in.
But not everyone sees the world the way Newt does. New York is full of people who have forgotten how to be curious in the face of the unknown, who live their lives under the shadow of whatever emotion it is that adults tend to adopt in place of wonder. The enemy here is fear itself—fear that would take these beautiful creatures of the world and cage them, fear that would grip children under control and whip them into submission.
It’s that second part of the story that makes me hesitate. Because for all the childlike magic and enthusiasm that fills this story, the violence on which the plot turns is very much directed at children themselves. It’s always implied, always indirectly shown, but a perceptive child may well see between the lines. At the very least, the woman who acts as the face of this violence will certainly inspire a deep-seated fear in any child watching. And the horror-film aesthetic used to portray her villainy—dark lighting, pale faces, jerky movements—contributes to its unsettling nature. There is no color in her world.
So, is this movie worth being unsettled for? I think so. Because this is the story of a man who will talk to scared children as he talks to scared animals: quietly, gently, calming their fears. This is the story of people who will fight to protect the vulnerable, at all costs. This is a story full of beauty and wide-eyed wonder. And for these reasons alone, it’s a story worth being told—again and again. (Warner Bros.)