In Depth

Why Fantastic Beasts is 'unexpectedly relevant' for 2016

JK Rowling's film is a marvellous fantasy romp, but did it mean to comment on contemporary politics?

Critics have hailed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as spectacular, magical and escapist fun – but does it also offer a dig at real world politics?    

The film, which has premiered in New York, is a scriptwriting debut for Harry Potter author JK Rowling. It stars Eddie Redmayne as young wizard Newt Scamander, who arrives in 1920s New York to further his study of magical creatures. When an accident releases his curious beasts into the unsuspecting muggle (non-magical) population, he unwittingly threatens to destroy the uneasy peace between the magical and non-magical communities.

It co-stars Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell.

But does this fantasy romp about a magical zookeeper also contain a commentary on our current political climate? Some critics think so.

Robbie Collin at the Daily Telegraph says that "possibly by accident, but probably not", the spectacular Fantastic Beasts has also turned out to be "the most unexpectedly relevant blockbuster of 2016". It may take place in the build-up to the Great Depression, says the critic, but its vision of an America "caught in the jaws of fear and paranoia" has the ring of the here and now.

The setting, Collin explains, is a city "seething with suspicion", with pamphleteers pressing for a "Second Salem" (witch trials) to keep the country's magic-users in check. There's even a "smirking son of privilege" running for congress with the campaign slogan "America's Future". 

It's a spectacular feat of world building, concludes Collin, who adds: "Keep it coming."

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Front Row, the film's director David Yates admits that in the wake of Donald Trump being elected and the UK's vote to leave the European Union it is "inevitable that those things resonate and impact" on the film.

Producer David Heyman added: "These issues that we are talking about being very current and resonant are actually very timeless, that's something we probably need to pay attention to."

Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian says that "enchanter" JK Rowling has "come storming back to the world of magic in a shower of supernatural sparks" with "a glorious fantasy-romance adventure". On a strictly escapist level, however, the critic notes that Fantastic Beasts "may be compromised by making one of its characters an obnoxious rich New York chump", reliant on his father's money and nursing political ambitions.

But there's a lovely performance from Redmayne as the diffident wizarding Brit who causes chaos with his bagful of exotic creatures, adds Bradshaw. His openness and likeability, and "the sheer generosity of movie-making energy", make this "an early Christmas treat".

Brian Viner in the Daily Mail agrees. He says "the fantastical parallel universe created by JK Rowling never felt quite so in tune with our own as it does in this exhilarating Harry Potter spin-off".

"For all its wit and spectacle", notes the critic, the film "has plenty to say about racial prejudice, establishment stooges and the abuse of power". And being a Rowling story, there are destructive forces of darkness to contend with, including a "splendidly sinister" anti-magic fundamentalist (Samantha Morton) and a fleeting appearance from Johnny Depp as rogue wizard Gellert Grindelwald.

But the emphasis throughout is on fun, says Viner who concludes that this is "marvellous escapism" after all.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is released in the UK on 18 November.

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