Disclaimer: I missed the first three minutes of this film due to a potty emergency for my two little ones, and then I missed about a minute in the middle of the movie due to another said potty emergency. So this review will be for the other 129 minutes of this film.
This film was a blast! I enjoyed it start to finish. This was a debut screenplay from J.K. Rowling herself. In the beginning, we are following two story lines, and it does feel a bit disjointed. Rest assured that they will weave together nicely by the end. I was relieved to find myself right back in the Wizarding world that I so loved when first discovering Harry Potter. What was especially nice is there is no long-winded explanations of what the Wizarding World is supposed to look like. When a wand appears and someone whispers "Accio!" you are supposed to know what will happen. When a memory is dragged from an unwilling witch, you are expected to understand what the silvery threads floating from her temple represent. And when a witch or wizard tears apart in a fluid Everlasting Gobstopper impression (don't you think they look like that?!), you should understand immediately what apparition is and how they are doing it.
This was a relief for me. There were the occasional mentions - a tiny Hogwarts vs Ilvermorny conversation, a reference to the family Lestrange, a mention of the great Albus Dumbledore - but this felt like it's own movie, and rightfully so. Harry Potter does not exist, Voldemort is of no consequence, and so none of our characters, or really any of their ancestors, have anything to do with this storyline.
And thank goodness for that!
Rowling had created such a wide and magical world when she first dreamed up Harry on a train ride of her own years and years ago, that it was wonderful being back in it without feeling that I was only there to relive a bit of my Harry mania. This story had substance and merit on its own. It plays off history in a wonderful way, too, introducing us to the Second Salem-ers who, you guessed it, want to wipe witches from the face of the earth.
And, most surprisingly (though I'm not sure why I expected any less), it wasn't just an adventurous film about a man chasing beasts throughout turn-of-the-century NYC. The darkness that sparked such passion in the Harry Potter series was present here as well, not just magic spells, or witchcraft; but real, human darkness - which is much scarier than anything a magic wand could conjure.
There is an abused boy. An abusive mother. She beats him and it's made quite plain that that is what is happening. Children are terrorized, brainwashed. Anger grows inside a child, carries with him as he grows into adulthood. Sure, this is a magical film, so the rage is linked to a parasitic, magical beast. But the relationship of stored rage and the destruction that comes when it's finally unleashed is impossible to ignore. But there was more than that. It sparked quite a conversation between my seven-year-old, my eight-year-old, and myself on the car ride home. Because the Bad Guy wants what I want in the end: he wants to save the life of the abused boy. And the Good Guys (aka The American version of the Ministry of Magic) kill the boy - and they do so because he had already killed others, he was a danger to the entire Wizarding World.
Now there were reasons the Bad Guy wanted to save the boy, he wanted to use him. And our heroes, a wayward Auror and Mr. Scamander himself also want to save the boy, but so they can cure him and help him. However, the conversation that sparked in the car was this: was it right to kill the boy? The so-called Good Guys did it. Who was right? The Bad Guy, or the Good Guys?
It threw my kids for a loop, let me tell you. My son insisted they were right to do that, because it was very dangerous and the boy had already killed other people. My daughter thought no, they should have waited. When my son argued again, vehemently, "but he KILLED people," I asked: "Does doing bad things make you a bad person?"
My boy said immediately, "Yes, if you do bad, you are bad." My daughter hesitantly agreed. I said, "So, if you do something bad, you are bad? Does that sound right to you?"
That sparked the longest silence I had ever experienced from the two of them in my car.
So, was this a perfect movie? No. It wandered a bit in pacing. Characters could have been developed further. But, the dialogue was good and didn't distract. The special effects were, yes I'll say it, fantastic. There were moments of joy and humor and - I'm sorry but I can't not say it - have you had a look at Eddie Redmayne?! Ohmygoodness, he is just so adorable. It will delight Harry Potter fans for no other reason than they are allowed back into their favorite world. But there is a spark of something here, something that truly cemented J.K. Rowling fans at the start. There is a spark of deep, genuine darkness, of horror at the depths of human depravity. There is torture here, and evil, and it doesn't come from the end of a wand or the scary beasts that float through our world, it comes from the hand of an average woman. She is like thousands of other average people, unremarkable in many ways, but terribly memorable for the destruction they can cause in the life of an innocent.
Would I recommend seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? You bet.
In case you're wondering, I attend this movie alone with my four children. They range in age 3-8. The three-year-old spent most of his time eating popcorn and saying "Whoa!" at all the magical creatures (and laughing at the Nifler). My four-year-old was bored unless a building was blowing up - thankfully, there were many explosions in this movie. But the older two really paid attention, my daughter was literally on the edge of her seat, and it was those two who really got the most out of it. Though, surprisingly, neither understood the boy was physically abused. Even though marks are clearly show on his palms, neither understood the woman had been hitting him. They knew she was mean, but not that she was beating him. I didn't enlighten them. It's too bad that someday soon they'll grow old enough to understand that this does happen, and all too often, to far too many children.