Nine years after the publication of Deathly Hallows, six years after the last Harry Potter movie, and four months after the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling once again welcomes fans back into her wizarding universe with the arrival of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Thanks to the series’ long afterlife, many of those fans might feel like they’ve never really left Rowling’s universe. Still, the latest spinoff is different from the rest of the magical franchise, and not just because there’s no one named “Harry” or “Potter” in sight. To those Potter fans who head into the theaters this weekend, here are a few key differences to keep in mind.
It’s a caper, not a coming-of-age story.
Fantastic Beasts is technically based on the magizoology textbook J.K. Rowling wrote for charity, but since that book has no real plot, the film adopts the structure of an adventure story. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, the author of the fictional textbook, arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures, a few of the creatures break loose, and Newt has to track them down. Most of the other Potter stories center on the characters’ personal growth; in Fantastic Beasts, everyone’s already grown up, which leaves the focus on the fighting of evil (and finding of beasts).
Which means the world doesn’t feel nearly as expansive as the Potter series.
Fantastic Beasts takes place in the magical parts of 1920s New York, which, as you might expect, J.K. Rowling has rendered with sweeping detail. But as this is a film rather than a novel, there isn’t nearly enough time to develop the side characters. Instead, we focus on Newt, the auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), her sister (Alison Sudol), and the muggle (okay, fine, we’ll call him a no-maj) who gets mixed up in the middle of things (Dan Fogler). Assume you’ll get to know the rest of the minor characters through piecemeal updates on Pottermore.
The humor tends toward slapstick.
Unsurprisingly, the beasts are the real highlight of the film, and many of them are darn cute — the niffler, a badger-slash-mole-slash-echidna that’s obsessed with shiny objects, especially. The film also relies on the beasts for much of its humor, which is broad and built around a lot of physical comedy. Poor Eddie Redmayne falls through windows, yells about teapots, and even does a mating dance. If you were hoping for any Hermione-level witticisms, you're out of luck.
There are a few connections to Hogwarts and Potter characters we know, but they are pretty tenuous.
Like the actor who plays him, Newt Scamander is a Hufflepuff, and he even carries around a Hufflepuff scarf. Dumbledore is mentioned in a few lines of dialogue, and the filmmakers have plans to insert him into future installments. The closest we get to an iconic character comes with a few mentions of Gellert Grindelwald, a powerful dark wizard who was, if you read between the lines in Deathly Hallows, the object of the young Dumbledore’s affections.
The tensions between wizards and no-majs are a whole lot starker in the world of Fantastic Beasts.
In the magical Britain of the Potter stories, muggles are mostly oblivious of the existence of wizards. In Fantastic Beasts’ America, wizards live in fear of being discovered by no-majs, which they believe would lead to an all-out war against their kind. Rowling explained the reasoning behind this on Pottermore, but the key thing to keep in mind is that American wizards basically live in a police state — oh, and they’re cool with the death penalty.
So yes, the political overtones are as present as ever.
Like the Potter books, Fantastic Beasts preaches tolerance in broad strokes — in this case, it’s about learning to understand and make peace with no-majs. Like Voldemort, Grindelwald is a power-hungry fascist. Like the heroes of the Potter books, Newt and his friends are misfits who fight against fear. Some reviews are calling it "the first anti-Trump blockbuster," which is maybe a stretch.
As many Potter connections as there are, Beasts is also the beginning of its own franchise, for better or worse.
How do you judge something that’s only a fifth of a whole? Like Jurassic World and The Force Awakens before it, Beasts does the double duty of evoking material you already know and teasing what’s to come in future installments. Die-hard Potter fans will likely be thrilled at the prospect of so much new material, while more casual viewers might be disappointed they’re not getting the whole story yet.