There is a scene in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in which Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a no-maj (American for muggle, which is a non-wizard in Potter speak), follows Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) inside his briefcase and enters his world of magical creatures. Kowalksi, who has been reluctantly pulled into the adventure, has by then started getting seduced by the lure of the wizarding world. In a place that looks like a cross between the Wild West and the countryside, Scamander gives him a tour of his collection of creatures—the menacing herd of Nandus, leopards with the toxic heads of puffer fish, the Occamies, serpents that look like peacocks that can expand or shrink depending on the available space, and the spectacular Thunderbird, which looks like the result of an experimental breeding of a phoenix with a bald eagle. It is like a Jurassic Park of gentler beasts, and Kowalksi is transfixed, like Alice in Wonderland. His initial cynicism has given way to childlike wonderment and a growing trust that all that looks grotesque is not evil.
He ambles towards an ominous mass of dark ash cloud approaching him like it is a cluster of bright coloured butterflies when Scamander stops him from touching it. For the first time in Fantastic Beasts, a movie that overturns every convention of good and evil, are we warned about something that has the semblance of a dark force. But even that comes with a context. The thing is called Obscuro and it is, we are told later, a manifestation of the repressed magic of children who are forced to hide their identities in civilization.
We are in 1926 New York City and a radical extremist organization is leading a witch-hunt—the pamphlets distributed on the streets read “We need a second Salem”. With a dash of alternate history, the film condemns the US’ xenophobic past. It also proves to be remarkably relevant to the unexpected post Trump and Brexit present, which is great considering the cultural reach and impact of such movies.
Fantastic Beasts is another addition to the line of modern blockbusters that recognize the moral grey between good and evil—the X-Men movies revolve around a similar theme.
Like its predecessor, Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts uses the simple, eternal tropes of popular myths and subverts them. And it manages to do this without losing the innocence of the tale. It begins with Scamander, a Magizoologist—a person who studies magical creatures—arriving in New York from Britain, armed with a briefcase full of them. A chance encounter with Kowalski results in some of these creatures escaping. Now, it is up to Scamander and Kowalski to find them. Some of the other characters who join in are Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), Newt’s future wife, who is an Auror fired from MACUSA (the Magical Congress of United States of America), and Percival Graves (Colin Farrel), a shadowy Auror investigating the case of escaping beasts.
But put Kowalski in the centre of the picture and Fantastic Beasts could be viewed as a reverse Wizard of Oz, from the other point of view and where there is no evil witch. Instead of Dorothy, the little girl from Kansas who dreams of a better life and was flown to a magical land by a dreamy tornado, we have Kowalski, a factory worker in New York who aspires to open a bakery. And the stirring touch in the climax, when Kowalski returns to the drudgery of the real world, also points at the same direction. Beside the gender-reversal, this character graph follows the arc of the classic American hero who accidentally embarks on a journey that will change his life forever. The actor who plays it, Dan Fogler is neither movie-star handsome nor boyish cute, but a plump and moustached American everyman. In another kind of movie, he would be used for comic relief. Here, he gets the light, romantic moments with the attractive Alison Sudol. And when need arises, he also manages to tame the biggest beast. Fogler, who is marvelous, is the soul of the movie.
All this may suggest that the film has little to do with Harry Potter. It does and it doesn’t. Albus Dumbledore—who has written the foreword in the Fantastic Beasts book, a text book in Hogwarts—is mentioned once. There is British-American banter about who has the better wizard school. We also see the making of one of the darkest wizards in history, the seeds of which are sown in pale, suffering faces in an orphanage. We will get closer to the world we know through books and movies as this series progresses – there are 5 Fantastic Beasts movies in the pipeline. But the farther the echoes from Hogwarts are, the stronger the pull of nostalgia is. JK Rowling, who has written the screenplay, and David Yates, who has directed the film, seem to understand this.