'Fantastic Beasts': Can a Harry Potter hater enjoy the new movie?
Find out what a Potter superfan and a confused muggle made of the new film set in J.K. Rowling's wizarding world.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is the first film in a new series, but it takes us into a wizarding world that's already familiar to millions of fans. So can someone who knows nothing about
enjoy the new film?
We sent wizarding superfan Katie Collins and Potter muggle Richard Trenholm to the movies to find out (with some very light spoilers).
Rich (not a Potter fan): I've never read a single Harry Potter book or made it through a whole film, so my knowledge of J.K. Rowling's wizarding world is limited to the pop culture osmosis of hearing people talk about quidditches and Dumbledores, whatever the hell they are.
Katie (very much a Potter fan): As the theme music struck up I started to get those familiar tingly Harry Potter feels. They stayed right until the end. I think it must have been the potent mix of nostalgia, magic and chilling moments that did it.
Rich: Happily, "Fantastic Beasts" is pretty welcoming to newcomers. In fact, it's more welcoming than the previous adventures of Harry and chums -- to me at least -- because it isn't about cutesy moppets running around a silly school.
Katie: There were definitely references in "Fantastic Beasts" only Potter fans would fully understand. I mean, that's quite some undetectable extension charm Newt puts on his suitcase. I've only really seen it used to make bags and tents a tad more roomy in the past, but it's like a whole other world in there.
It's also good to know that even back in the day, Dumbledore was sticking his neck out for misunderstood students like Newt Scamander.
Rich: The opening sequence, in which some guy escapes from some place, meant nothing to me. Throughout the film, this Grindelwald chap is mentioned a couple of times, but it's never properly explained who he is or what he stands for. So when the big reveal happened, it left me cold.
Katie: Anyone who knows Potter knows about Grindelwald -- his history with Dumbledore in particular. I get how the big revelio feels like it's the beginning of something else entirely, but hard-core fans already know Grindelwald's past and future, so this glimpse into what happens in between is tantalising.
Rich: Leaving aside whether you're a fan or not, there's just too much going on in the film. Much of it is setup for future movies, which won't pay off for years. That's not a Potter-specific criticism, obviously. "Batman v Superman", Marvel's "Civil War" and other franchise films have the same problem.
Fantastic Beasts 2 takes Harry Potter fans back to Hogwarts
Katie: The most intriguing hint as to what's coming next is the Lestrange name-drop. Every Potter fan loves to hate Bellatrix Lestrange, who we know is from a famous dark wizarding family. I'm excited to learn about her heritage.
Rich: Well, I never. I didn't know any of that, so the mentions of Lestrange just felt like more backstory that didn't get paid off. I was sad the various forward-looking subplots crowded out some of this entry's good stuff. In particular, I wanted to see more of Samantha Morton and Colin Farrell. Their characters are firmly opposed yet thematically linked, and the film really missed a trick by not bringing them together for some explosive scenes.
Katie: The story line of Fantastic Beasts is certainly busy, and there are so many juicy characters packed into the film that I agree, two hours is perhaps not enough to do them justice.
In the same breath, I'd point out that Potter fans are used to seeing much-loved books, chock-full of spells and subplots and characters, reduced down into this kind of intense and slightly manic movie sauce. It's one of the few similarities this prequel shares with the originals.
Rich: The biggest problem for me, as someone unfamiliar with the Harry Potter world, is why it's so important for magic and no-maj worlds to be kept separate. Rowling and ardent Potter fans may take it as read, but if the whole central conflict is built on this detail, then the reasoning behind it needs to be as solid as the walls of Azkaban (see, I do know some stuff). If only the film had explained what the dire consequences would actually be.
Katie: Potter gets pretty dark, especially in the final couple of films, but even though that darkness manifests itself in different ways, the enemy is always ultimately the same. It felt exciting to get an insight into other types of dark magic. There's a whole restricted section in the Hogwarts library and the original stories only scratch the surface of what's in there. I also loved how that plot line touched on real-life history we're all familiar with: the Salem witch trials.
Rich: I absolutely loved the hint that the First World War sucked in the wizarding world as well. Was that caused by some kind of clash between muggles and wizards? That would be cool.
Katie: Fundamentally, as is always the case in the Potter universe, it turns out that the real poignancy of the tale hinges not on averting disaster, but on building and strengthening relationships between the characters.
Rich: A bit alternate history, a bit steampunk, and thoroughly magical, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" did something I didn't think possible. It made me interested in Harry Potter. I won't be seeking out the previous Potter stories, but when Newt and his fantastic beasts return, you'll know where to find me.
Watch this: 'Fantastic Beasts' star Dan Fogler dishes his magic turn-ons