With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, director David Yates and Harry Potter scribe J. K. Rowling welcome us back into the Wizarding World—and this time, they let a Muggle like us play a main character. Fantastic Beasts stars waifish magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) but the show is stolen by magic-less interloper Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and his admirable, openhearted curiosity.
Wizards in Prohibition-era New York, where the movie is set, are a suspicious and stealthy folk, constantly on high alert to keep non-magical people from discovering their parallel society. Magical Brits, we remember from the Harry Potter series, call their mundane fellow citizens “Muggles,” but across the pond the term is “No-Maj”—an ugly little abbreviation that feels less like a whimsical nickname and more like a slur. American wizarding law forbids wizards and witches from fraternizing with Muggles. One detects here a Brit looking askance at America’s shameful history of racial segregation.
We feel the injustice of this treatment of the non-magical more keenly because Jacob the No-Maj is so easy to identify with. He’s an ordinary-looking cannery worker with big dreams of opening a bakery, until a mix-up of briefcases draws him into the magical world. As Jacob encounters fabulous spells, fearsome challenges, and (of course) fantastic beasts, he responds with gee-wiz enthusiasm and a can-do spirit. He quickly becomes fast friends with Newt Scamander, even though the awkward creature-collector is usually better able to identify with his beasts than with his fellow man. Jacob’s unfeigned enthusiasm for everything wins over the wary wizard.
Rowling’s script shines most in its digressions, as she shows off the odd nooks and crannies of Wizarding Manhattan, like a goblin-run speakeasy that serves literal “giggle water.” Thanks to Jacob Kowalski, we get to be awed again by the aspects of the magical world that our wizard protagonists view as mundane. Really, which of us wouldn’t be caught up with wonderment at meals that assemble themselves mid-air at the flick of a wand?
The main plot of the film concerns a conspiracy that bridges wizard-supremacists within the American magical government, scary anti-magic extremists at the fringes of No-Maj society, and a dark force called an “Obscurus.” It doesn’t exactly come together in a fully satisfying way—the need to tie things back to elements of the Harry Potter series undercuts and confuses the resolution—but these plot stumbles matter little to one’s enjoyment of the film. Magical Beasts is at its best when it gives us Newt, Jacob, and their friends getting into madcap hijinks to catch beasts run amok in Manhattan, from the acquisitive Niffler to the amorous Erumpent. The creature designs are charming and imaginative. It’s all the easier to greet them with the delight and amazement they deserve when our onscreen avatar Jacob is doing the same.
Rowling is clearly charmed by her No-Maj deuteragonist as well, so (spoiler) she doesn’t quite have the heart to cut him definitively out of the magical world, even when the magical world wants him gone. This doesn’t take away the sting of Jacob’s exile back to the non-magical world: Jacob’s good qualities win him grace notes in the closing moments of the film, but Magical New York becomes poorer, and less magical, without him in it.
After seven volumes of the adventures of a destined hero, I thought the Wizarding World had about run its course. It took a working-class New Yorker armed with the virtues of curiosity and wholeheartedness to awaken the magic once more.