I picked up the first Harry Potter book– actually, it was given to me by a kindly school librarian– when I was 12, just a year or so after the book was published in 1997. The series took a decade to complete, culminating, for me, with a trip to a bookstore in Germany to buy the UK edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows during a backpacking trip before my senior year of college. Like any piece of art that wallops you at just the right time, those books embedded themselves in my identity. Who would I have been without Harry Potter, or for that matter, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Simpsons, Monsoon Wedding, or that mural on the wall of Amoeba Records commemorating the free speech movement? (When I was a freshman in college, I walked by it twice a day and still think about it pretty often.) We are what we love, especially what we love when we are young.
So, it’s not really correct to say that I’m a “fan” of Harry Potter. It’s deeper than that. The series provided a framework for my adolescence. The first movie coincided with my first real crush, who kissed another girl at the screening and provided my first real heartbreak. I picked up the fourth book one hot high school summer and stayed up till 3 AM weeping over the return of Voldemort, my brothers collaborating on music in the next room. The sixth book came out when I was working at a mini-Borders in a shopping mall, so I remember staring at those unopened boxes in the windowless storage room, eating turkey sandwiches brought in from my parents’ house. Then there was the pinnacle seventh book that summer in Europe, a reading experience so dear that I stopped reading it on the plane in order to finish it in the privacy of my own home.
So, anyway, I thought Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them kind of sucked. I mean, of course, I did. What spinoff could possibly compare to the juicy, heart-wrenching, real-time growing-up adventures of the original series?
But I expected to feel that way. I figured the movie would kind of suck since the first trailer. Or maybe since the Cursed Child. Or even as early as the establishment of the site Pottermore, which I quickly realized would not be a substitute for an honest-to-god eighth Harry Potter book. Spin-offs just weren’t going to do it for me.
So, once I lowered those expectations, I found things to like about this movie. Rowling wrote the script, and the movie was at its best when it let her do her thing. There was some classic Rowling stuff, stuff I’ve seen in her work for adults, too. Mistaken identities, appeals for decency, a complex and unfair bureaucracy, even a prescient band of misfits, all set in a universe that plays with the laws of thermodynamics as if they were silly putty. Most impressive, though, was that the movie had real heart. Scamander’s lines about learning to understand, rather than fear, animals were a little clichéd, but I recognized a genuine respect for nature in that suitcase scene. (Maybe those were fictional animals, but Earth animals are just as bizarre.) It made me wonder if Fantastic Beasts is to environmentalism as Harry Potter was to bigotry. Both are causes we need champions for right now.
I’ll admit that I thought the movie was seriously flawed and I was bored enough to make three trips to the lobby during the showing (bathroom, beer, slice of pizza) but I don’t want to rain negativity over a franchise that has given me so much pleasure just because that pleasure has lessened with subsequent chapters. I enjoyed the Harry Potter series the way you can only really enjoy a childhood book. It becomes your whole world, even when it’s not open in front of you. Fantastic Beasts did not present a whole world (maybe because of the greed-based decision to dilute one movie into five, but let’s not get into that.) Still, it’s one I won’t mind visiting from time to time.