This feature contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and other Harry Potter films. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
For fans of JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, the newest adjunct to the Harry Potter franchise has been refreshingly unknown up until release. Although new spinoff Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is set before the previous films, we don’t expect that Rowling’s planned five films will dovetail directly into The Sorcerer’s Stone and, aside from a couple of references to wizarding history, it’s uncharted territory.
The book version of Fantastic Beasts was published for Comic Relief in 2001 and purports to be an abridged, Muggle-worthy edition of Newt Scamander’s in-universe work on magical creatures. On the other hand, the plot of the film is brand new, taking place during Newt’s research into writing the book, when he inadvertently causes a wizarding crisis in New York after he arrives with a suitcase full of magical specimens. It’s a Harry Potter film, plus that Doctor Who movie that director David Yates wanted to make a few years ago, combined with just about everything you’d want from a live-action Pokemon movie.
But where fans of the Potter books could previously explain away plotholes or vagaries in the film adaptations to fans who haven’t read them, there’s no equivalent here, except for the script book which published simultaneously with the film’s global release. That means you may have a few unanswered questions, especially as regards to the sequels that should arrive on a semi-annual basis between now and 2024.
So, we’ve had a go at addressing some of these, referring to the script, the 2001 book and the other Harry Potter films. While Fantastic Beasts is fairly accessible even if you haven’t seen the other films, this article might get a bit spoilery where the sequels are concerned, if it’s your first exposure to the Potterverse. With all of that in mind, scroll past our very own magical pet, Daphne the spoiler squirrel, for some questions and answers…
What’s up with the wizarding world in America?
After the conventional air traffic hazards of logos in the clouds and the brief sting of John Williams’ iconic theme, the film begins with a familiar use of exposition. Recalling Yates’ use of magical newspaper front pages in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, we’re given our first glimpse of the global wizarding crisis circa 1926, with a worldwide manhunt for dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald underway and anti-wizard feeling on the rise even though their existence is supposed to be a secret.
When Rowling introduces the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), she echoes US Department of Homeland Security’s contemporary National Terrorism Advisory System in real life, with the color-coded Magical Exposure Threat Level clock that hangs in the atrium of their headquarters in the Woolwich Building. It’s a useful shorthand for the level of uncertainty and suspicion that Grindelwald has fueled in America in particular.
Witch hunt imagery is naturally more potent in America, in which Salem would have been a massive historical event for the magical community, especially with a New Salem Philanthropic Society of “Second Salemers” calling for those policies to be resumed on a national level. This is more implied than explained, perhaps to avoid aligning fantasy with real historical events, but the context is clear. As a result, MACUSA’s legislative response to the crisis strictly segregates wizards from “No-Majs” (as they call Muggles) and prohibits the breeding and keeping of magical creatures.
What was Newt doing in New York City?
We meet Newt (Eddie Redmayne) fresh off the ferry in New York, sneaking his magic suitcase past the Muggle (or No-Maj) customs officer. For obvious reasons, he’s not forthcoming about the purpose of his visit, but he also lies to his fellow magic folk. Newt’s character is guarded and many have noticed that Redmayne seldom makes eye contact with other characters.
When former Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) apprehends him after a fiasco at the city bank, Newt claims to be looking for a man who can give him an Appaloosa Puffskein, a rare breed of a bogey-eating creature and popular wizarding pet. Tina snaps back that they shut him down a year ago, due to the laws against breeding, but Newt later repeats this lie to a British envoy in the Magical Congress as well.
It’s telling that he eventually confides in Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a Muggle, that he’s on a mission to release a rescued Thunderbird, affectionately named Frank, to its natural habitat in Arizona. He tells of how he freed the bird from captivity in Egypt and the script describes one of Frank’s legs as “rubbed raw and bloody.”
Newt repeatedly seeks to educate fellow witches and wizards about magical creatures and his preservationist mission, but his mistrust of them has clearly been hard-learned in previous adventures. However, this mistrust also puts him under the suspicion of MACUSA at a time when they’re on high alert.
Which of Newt’s creatures escape the suitcase?
A lot of the creatures in the film are named only in passing and unless you’re furiously flipping through your copy of the textbook, you might not have caught all of the names of the creatures featured on screen for the first time, or spotted all of the references to others that don’t appear. By way of a short spotter’s guide, here are the creatures we’ve got and the roles they play after taking advantage of the faulty clasp on Newt’s case whenever it opens up a smidge.
Newt’s Niffler kicks things off by making a scene in the bank and the larcenous furry platypus has a memorable excursion in a jewellery shop later on too. Then a Murtlap escapes and bites Jacob, giving him a severe allergic reaction that causes Newt and Tina to hesitate in Obliviating his memory. Later, the horny rhino that alternately tries to bonk Newt and Jacob in Central Park is an Erumpent, and the winged serpent whose eggs are made of silver is an Occamy.
The other named creatures from the book are Dougal the Demiguise, a clairvoyant lemur whose fur can be woven into invisibility cloaks, and Pickett the Bowtruckle that sits in Newt’s breast pocket for most of the movie. There are more geeky spots in the magical speak-easy, The Blind Pig, where Newt offers Ashwinder eggs to the unscrupulous goblin Grabnak, while Rowling’s original lyrics for the song by the goblin jazz singer (Emmi) reference unicorns, dragons and Hippogriffs.
Inside the magical habitat of Newt’s case, we’re introduced to the last breeding pair of Graphorns and also see Diricawls (the bird with the Apparating chicks), Grindylows (the floating fish), a Nundu (the lion with the puffer fish neck), a Fwooper (bright pink bird), and Billywigs (which Newt calls “a big moth” in the street in Tina). As for the Thunderbird and the Swooping Evil (the cocooned, seemingly curse-proof bird that Newt uses against Aurors), they’re new for the film — we’re only Muggles, so why would they be mentioned in our edition of the textbook?
What is an Obscurus?
In setting up the new series of films, Fantastic Beasts turns out to be torn between two storylines, the second of which is considerably darker and more portentous. It centers around another creature that we’ve yet to see in the films before now: a parasitic form of dark magic that manifests in young children who have somehow repressed their magic, instead of expressing it naturally or learning to control it. If released, it’s incredibly destructive and can suck the life out of anything it encounters.
Newt’s Obscurus has been separated from a Sudanese girl he met on his travels, who died as a result of her exposure. It is specifically the work of an Obscurus that MACUSA suspects may have been a result of Newt’s carelessness with his magical creatures, especially after it kills a No-Maj senator. But senior Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is carrying out a private investigation into the Obscurial (the child hosting the Obscurus), with the help of abused Second Salemer Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller).
Graves suspects that one of the children adopted by the fanatical Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) might be an Obscurial as a result of the physical and psychological abuse that creates them. We also learn that it’s uncommon for Obscurials to live past the age of 10, just a little younger than the age of admission to Hogwarts. This begs a question that isn’t necessarily related to this particular film…
Why wasn’t Harry Potter an Obscurial?
Given the conditions described for an Obscurial, this might have troubled fans of the books and films alike. Before Hagrid comes and rescues him, Harry suffers a terrible childhood with his only surviving relatives, the Dursleys. Fearful and prejudiced about his magical heritage, Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia tell him his parents died in a car crash and force him to sleep in the cupboard under their stairs. Rowling explored this even more in flashback sequences in this year’s West End sequel to the series, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child.
Handily, we actually can refer back to the books for this one. Early on in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone, there are references to weird incidents around Harry in primary school that he couldn’t explain before he found out he was magical, such as turning his teacher’s wig blue, or Apparating onto a roof while being chased by his cousin Dudley. The incident that makes it into the film adaptation is his accidental release of a boa constrictor at the zoo by speaking to it in Parseltongue and then vanishing the glass.
These events frustrate the Dursleys, but Harry doesn’t know about the existence of magic until he turns 11. Meanwhile, when Credence turns out to be the Obscurial, we know that his self-loathing comes from years of being beaten by Mary Lou, who rants and raves about “witches among us” and the evil of magic. When he finally loses it, it’s catastrophic, as compared to Harry’s minor expressions of magic. Plus, Harry has already been turned into a Horcrux by Lord Voldemort by this point, so he’s more than enough nastiness to contend with already.
Who is Theseus Scamander?
When Tina brings Newt before MACUSA during a crisis meeting with wizarding envoys from all over the world, the British representative recognises him as “Scamander,” which prompts another envoy to ask if he means Theseus Scamander, “the war hero.” During a set visit earlier this year, Colin Farrell told reporters for Potter fansite SnitchSeeker that Graves knew of Newt through communication with his brother, “a very powerful and commanding British Auror.”
This particular piece of information doesn’t appear in the published script or the film, which is true of a few of the plot nuggets given in that round of cast interviews. However, we’ve never known Rowling to drop a reference like that without coming back to it at some point down the line, so you can count on meeting Theseus in one of the sequels, even if his role in this one may have been reduced.
What is the Death Cell?
After discovering the Obscurus in Newt’s case, Graves summarily condemns Newt and his unwitting accomplice Tina to death and asks two very nice older ladies to carry out their sentence immediately. If you were expecting a nice clean Dementor’s kiss or even a Avada Kedavra at that point, then Rowling surprised you again with the wizarding equivalent of capital punishment.
The pure white Death Cell has a large pool in the middle, full of a potion that seems to work much like Dumbledore’s Pensive, and Bernadette the executioner cheerfully extracts Tina’s happiest memories to lull her into submission as she’s lowered into what turns out to be a corrosive black mess.
It’s only Newt’s intervention, by knocking the executioner’s wand into the potion to break the spell, that Tina snaps out of it and starts panicking. The eerie bedside manner of the two lovely old ladies is what really makes the Death Cell such a spine-tinglingly nasty invention. “Let’s get the good stuff out of you.” Shudder.
Who is Leta Lestrange?
Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) is a bubbly and vivacious witch who uses her abilities as a Legilimens to her advantage throughout the adventure. When she sees inside Newt’s suitcase, her natural curiosity about a photograph gets the better of her and she finds out the full story of a Hogwarts romance that still clearly weighs on Newt’s heart.
The girl in the picture is played by Zoë Kravitz, in the first of two short cameo roles that we expect will come back around in the sequels, and named as Leta Lestrange. She’s not an ancestor of the Potter series’ Bellatrix, whose maiden name was Black before she married fellow pureblood Death Eater Rodolphus, but you can bet she’s not as environmentally friendly as Newt.
“She was a taker,” Queenie tells him sadly. “You need a giver.” We can tell by the end that she’s told Tina the whole story, but we don’t know much more just yet. We expect that despite the globetrotting focus of this series, the sequels will bring Leta, like Theseus, back into Newt’s life as he continues to travel.
What happened to Credence?
After courting Credence for information all the way through the film and promising to train him to be a wizard, Graves cruelly dismisses the poor lad at the end of the second act, believing that his adoptive sister Modesty is the Obscurial he’s been looking for. Heartbroken, Credence finally loses control and reverts to Obscurus form.
This comes after earlier outbursts in which the Obscurus killed the senator and Mary Lou, both of whom have tormented and verbally abused Credence at different points in the film. When Credence finally loses control of his own corporeal form to the Obscurus, we get a beast lesser spotted since 2011’s Green Lantern: the CGI cloud of badness.
Newt desperately tries to soothe Credence out of his Parallax form as he rampages across the city and into the subway, but is also pursued by Graves, who attempts to subdue and capture the Obscurus for his own nefarious uses. In something of an anti-climax, the Aurors show up and blast poor Credence to smithereens just as it seems like he might be talked down. Graves seems more genuinely upset about this than Newt or Tina, which is especially annoying, considering who he turns out to be…
Who is Gellert Grindelwald?
The modern publicity cycle isn’t exactly friendly to blockbusters, but the recent reveal that Fantastic Beasts would be a five-film series covering the first wizarding world war, and that Johnny Depp would play Grindelwald, was a bit of an own goal for a film that indulges in Rowling’s tried-and-tested brand of whodunnit. Farrell’s performance as Graves is decent enough that you find yourself lamenting his transformation into a blond, spiky haired Depp, even if you’re not especially surprised by it.
In keeping with many of Depp’s recent roles, he’s eccentrically styled, here coming across as a bleached out version of his character from 2015’s Mortdecai. The character was previously played by Jamie Campbell-Bower and Michael Byrne in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1. Grindelwald’s a relatively obscure character in the books outside of the last one, when his childhood friendship with Albus Dumbledore was revealed. But it’s his rise and fall, as a wizarding analog to Hitler, that will be covered in these films.
It’s Farrell who gets to set out Grindelwald’s ethos though, which is much like Magneto’s in X-Men, plotting to expose magic to Muggle-kind and bring about a final reckoning in which the weaker race submits to the rule of wizards. Depp’s cameo amounts to two lines, first sneering at the idea that MACUSA can hold him, and then asking Newt “Will we die, just a little?” as he’s taken into custody. We can’t make head nor tail of that last remark, but if the mumbly, vaguely European accent of Diet Mortdecai confounded you, then that’s what he said.
Where is the real Percival Graves?
It’s not the first time that this twist has been done in the series though. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire boasts a marvellous performance by Brendan Gleeson as Alastor Moody, who turns out to be an impostor. At the end of the film, his Polyjuice potion wears off and Gleeson morphs back into David Tennant.
On the other hand, Newt reveals Graves as Grindelwald in disguise with a Revealing Charm and the transition doesn’t look the same. While the Polyjuice potion requires the person you’re imitating to be alive or at least close by so that you can make more potion out of their genetic material, which would mean that Farrell could return as Graves in the sequels just as his In Bruges co-star returned as the real Moody.
However, Grindelwald might have already killed Graves to take his place in the upper echelons of MACUSA. This brings us back to Newt’s brother Theseus, who was, at one point in the production at least, apparently in touch with Graves. If this comes up next time around, does he know that Graves was Grindelwald or was he fooled like everyone else? It would be interesting if Theseus and Leta turn out to harbour some of the same nasty views about Muggles, just as Nazi sympathisers existed in Britain before and even during wartime.
Is Tina the master of the Elder Wand now?
When Newt uses the Swooping Evil to apprehend Graves/Grindelwald in the subway, Tina takes the opportunity to summon his wand away from him. If you remember Grindelwald’s role in The Deathly Hallows, you’ll know he was the owner of the all-powerful Elder Wand before Dumbledore, and ownership of that wand passes when one wizard either magically subdues or defeats another.
We’re only addressing this one because we’ve seen it asked a lot in the bottom half of the internet since people got to see the film. The complicated wandlore propounded in the final book specifies only that a wizard can win a specific wand from another, and Graves isn’t packing the Elder Wand as seen in the Harry Potter films this time around. We might see Grindelwald claim that wand in another, later film, or he might have felt that it would be a bit of a giveaway to use an all-powerful wand while disguised as Colin Farrell, but nope, Tina is not even a third of the way to mastering Death yet.
How does Newt wipe the memory of all the No-Majs in New York?
The two new birds in the film, the Swooping Evil and Frank the Thunderbird, work in tandem to reverse the city-sploding consequences of Credence’s rampage for the muggles of New York. Early in the film, Newt speculates that amongst its other uses, the Swooping Evil’s venom could have useful properties in a memory potion, if diluted properly. With Jon Voight’s bereaved newspaper magnate baying for blood at a magical barrier over the subway, Newt releases Frank and sends him skyward to alter the weather rain the memory potion on the No-Majs below.
It’s a neat visual and it makes for a sweet montage as Aurors magically repair the damage and the assorted non-magical folks lose focus and blankly wander off back home. It’s a quick fix that allows the film to have a typical blockbuster finale without blowing the all-important secrecy, but it begs the question of how all those people get around with no memory of the last 48 hours or so.
Is Jacob’s memory gone for good?
The best chance of an answer to that will be if Jacob comes back in the sequels. At President Picquery’s insistence, Jacob has to walk home in the memory-altering rain and forget all about what he’s learned. It was love at first sight for him and Queenie, so there’s quite an emotional farewell before he goes out and gets soaked.
It certainly seems that his memory should be gone for good, but when Newt donates some Occamy egg collateral for his bakery, he makes delicious looking Graphorns out of pastry, so there’s clearly some trace left. In the very last scene, Queenie enters the shop and Jacob smiles either in recognition or because he’s reacting much the same way as he did the first first time he saw her. Fogler and Sudol are the best players in this first film, so we’d bank on them being back in some capacity, even though the sequels will move across Europe…
What will the next four films be about?
Off the back of this first installment, we expect that now published author Newt Scamander will continue his adventures in preserving and protecting magical beasts across the world. We already know from Yates that the first sequel will be set in Paris and that casting is underway for a younger Dumbledore. We’re not sure how much younger than Michael Gambon a young Dumbledore would have to be, but it’s worth pointing out that Mark Rylance is the same age as Depp, who’s playing his contemporary.
So, it’s safe to bet that Grindelwald will escape the custody of MACUSA and characters like Madam Picquery will return as the international scope of the wizarding world grows. We’d also expect to meet Theseus Scamander and get properly introduced to Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange and a couple of the other delegates from MACUSA, such as Gemma Chan’s Ya Zhou or Christian Dixon’s Momolu Wotorson, who only have a line each in the first movie.
The next two films are scheduled for similar release dates in 2018 and 2020, so we’ll see this new story unfold across a slightly longer cycle than the Harry Potter films did. Although Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them leaves a lot on the table, especially in its timely but broad sketch of American politics, and contorts itself with world-building, there’s plenty of the wizarding world left to explore.