“Where There is Light There is Shadow”: The Blend of Fantasy and Magic With Bigotry, Racism, and Prejudice in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Directed by David Yates, 2016.

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In 2007 the last novel in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published. Yet ‘Pottermania’ refused to subside. The novels continued to be read and reread; the films were telecast on film channels, and before long the world had started clamoring for a fresh Potter story. It was, in many ways, inevitable that Rowling would revive the wizarding world, both in theatre and cinema. In August 2015 arrived a new play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, breaking profit records in the world of theatre in both London and New York. In November 2016 Rowling further delighted her admirers with a new film, based on the Potter universe, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Based on an original story by Rowling, the film is set in 1920s New York and follows the adventures of a Magizoologist, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne).

     Unlike the Harry Potter novels, the protagonist is an adult and the wizarding world he inhabits is a darker and murkier universe than the familiar and much loved Hogwarts. The film opens with Newt (Eddie Redmayne) landing in New York in search of unusual magical creatures. However, his plans for exploration turn topsy-turvy when his briefcase full of fantastic beasts is exchanged with the case of an ordinary ‘No-Maj’ (non-magic people more familiar to Potterheads as muggles), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Mayhem ensues as Newt’s magical beasts are let loose in New York where they wreck havoc. There are genuine and heartwarmingmoments of humor and entertainment as we see the bewilderment of Jacob, a laborer who dreams of owning his bakery, unable to believe the magical world he has been thrust into and the antics of Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Newt as they race to prevent damage by the magical creatures.

     But interspersed with the humor and wonder of the magical world is violence, prejudice, hatredanddeath. Newt’s astonishingly wonderful magical menagerie is contrasted with the real 1920s New York cityscape. Rowling introduces into her fictional wizarding world a slice of historical fact, with the presence in of the ‘Second Salemers’, an obvious reference to the Salem Witches trial. The conflict between non-magic people and wizards and witches makes the film, in some ways, into a political allegory on the present day problems of intolerance and bigotry as well as the contemporary World War 1 scenario. The American equivalent of the British Ministry of Magic, Macusa, is an authoritarian organization, disallowing marital relationships between ‘No-Majs’ and witches and wizards, and outlawing all ‘dangerous’ magical creatures.

     There are various kinds of surveillance methods used by the Macusa, a strong reminder of the Orwellian universe of the ‘Big Brother’. The film depicts a time of intense superstition and fear of magic, a time of witch hunts and Protestant Christian zealots like Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). Mary Lou captures young witches and wizards and imprisons them in her orphanage where they are subjected to the most brutal of torturous punishments. The cameo of young Modesty is chillingly frightening, with her rant of “Witch number three, gonna watch her burn, Witch number four, flogging take a turn”. Mary Lou’s cruelty leads to the suppression of magic in one of her children, Credence, who transforms into a grotesque ‘Obscurial’, possessed by angry energy to kill and destroy.

     In the course of the film we discover that the recapturing of Newt’s magical creatures will only solve part of the threat to the city; far more dangerous is the threat posed by the ‘Obscurial’ (later revealed to be Credence) who may destroy New York and expose the wizarding world before the unsuspecting ‘No-Majs’.  There enters into this grim setting Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a power hungry Macusa official with an insidious agenda of his own. Added to all of these intrigues is the looming threat of the infamous dark wizard, GellertGrindlewald. The cinematic universe of Yates is spectacularly dazzling, similar to science fiction film sets with its array of fantastical creatures and its imaginary magical zoo, hidden in Newt’s briefcase. The magical creatures are marvelous to behold, from the cute little Niffler who loves shining objects, to the enormous Erumpent and the Thunderbird. The developing friendships and romances between Tina, Newt, Jacob, and Tina’s mind-reading legilimens sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is depicted wonderfully, with little melodrama, in a touching and relatable style.

     But the same world echoes with covert themes of the evils of prejudice and the destructive damage caused by racial preconceptions. The climactic scenes are grim to the point of verging on the gothic: Percival Graves is revealed to be Grindelwald in disguise and Credence is stopped just in time by Newt and Tina. However, Credence himself is destroyed through no fault of his; his anger being a result of the tortures inflicted on him (a stark reminder of the psychological damage suffered by orphans in the hands of social workers in the 1920-30s). In his swirling black coat, shaved head, hooked nose, Graves is disturbingly similar to the Gestapo soldiers. Rowling wisely choose Yates to direct the film as he is familiar with the Potter universe like no other. Rowling’s magical world comes alive at his hands, with the audience traversing an extraordinary imaginary setting, from the period sets of the city to the magical zoo of Scamander to the dark alleyways of New York slums to the Fanatical Churches and orphanages.

     There are stellar performances rendered by the entire cast. Redmayne as Newt is perfect; he comes across with just the right combination of scatter-brained clumsiness, magical genius, and kind-hearted compassion. Fogler does complete justice to the character of Jacob, baffled, enamored, entranced by a world he can scarcely believe is real. The Goldstein sisters are both immensely likeable, the capable and ambitious Tina as well as the flirtatious yet charmingly manipulative Queenie. The first of a proposed five film franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is both entertaining and thought-provoking. The potterheads will certainly look forward to the next installments and the new initiates into the Potter universe may just start on the very thrilling journey of reading Rowling’s magnificent novels.

-Somrita Misra

 

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