This week, fans of the Harry Potter world will likely flock to theaters for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second chapter in the prequel franchise centered on magizoologist Newt Scamander, but how frightening will it be for young viewers? Christy Lemire breaks down whether or not the film’s dark magic will spook the little ones and offers up a trio of alternatives — also about fantastic beasts in various forms — in case you can’t make it to theaters for The Crimes of Grindelwald… or choose not to risk freaking out your toddlers.
Rating: PG-13, for some sequences of fantasy action.
The sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is less fantastic, and it actually features fewer beasts. Nevertheless, this spin-off series from the Harry Potter universe continues to slog along. These films aren’t as strong as their source material, and this second one is a step down from the first. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is back for more magical adventures in the 1920s, but they don’t have much to do with his work as a magizoologist. This time, a young Dumbledore (Jude Law) has tasked him with tracking down the villainous Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who has staged a daring prison break. Grindelwald is amassing all the pureblood wizards worldwide to rise up and take over the half-bloods and Muggles, or No-Majs as they’re known here. Themes of totalitarianism lingered over the first film, but this time, Potter mastermind and screenwriter J.K. Rowling spells it out in much more plain and harrowing fashion. We see imagery reminiscent of the Holocaust in a theoretical flash-forward: trains, fires, ashes. The wizard battles can be quite intense and the overall tone is dark. And returning director David Yates (who also directed the last four Harry Potter movies) is juggling so many characters and subplots, it might be difficult for younger viewers to follow. I’d say this is fine for kids around 9 and older, especially if they’re already familiar with the series.
If the Fantastic Beasts movies are too intense for the kids in your family – or you’re just looking for something better – here are some other films featuring magical creatures you all might enjoy.
You could show your kids the 1977 original, as well. But this one’s far more visually dazzling (and probably easier to find). Director David Lowery’s wistful and transporting family film is sort of a remake, in that it’s about a boy named Pete, and he has a dragon, but that’s about it. This is a lovely film for the whole family; it takes place in the 1970s and feels as if it was made then, too. But in classic Disney tradition, it’s about an orphan. Pete (Oakes Fegley) lost his parents at a very young age, and has been raised in the forest by his only friend: a furry, green dragon he named Elliot. When a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers him at age 11 and brings him home, he struggles to adjust to civilization while trying to protect his magical pal from loggers who want to capture him for their own glory. Lowery’s pacing is unhurried and he uses wordless sequences efficiently to tell his story. The relationship between Pete and Elliot is full of both frolic and joy as well as quiet, intimate moments. But in the film’s first few minutes, we do see the car accident that killed Pete’s parents; he survives, then wanders alone in the woods until he meets Elliot. The sense of loneliness and loss is powerful and might be too much for very young viewers. Also, a group of loggers take down the dragon using tranquilizer guns and chain him to a flatbed truck, which also could be disturbing. But mostly, I’d say this is a great choice for viewers around 6 and older.
Rating: PG, for adult situations/language, and violence.
Sure, it’s one of the films that inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating, so it’s probably best suited for slightly older kids. But Gremlins is a fundamental ‘80s movie and it’s a ton of fun. Director Joe Dante’s horror comedy classic follows the mayhem that transpires when a seemingly adorable, cuddly creature is mishandled. You’re not supposed to expose it to bright light, get it wet, or feed it after midnight. But of course, things go horribly, thrillingly wrong, turning the sweet-faced Gizmo into a maniacal fiend who spawns multiple offspring hell-bent on wreaking havoc. (The effects are achieved through puppets, but man, are they creepy puppets.) Understandably, the human response to this calamity is equally intense. Gremlins turns violent and contains quite a bit of language. Still, this is a blast of a choice for viewers around 10 and older.
Rating: PG, for some scary moments and mild language.
If your kids are new to the whole Harry Potter universe and you’re looking to introduce them to it, at least in film form, why not start from the beginning? The first couple of movies in the series – and especially the first one – are quite sweet and gentle. There’s plenty of magic to be found, and the villains and dark themes begin announcing their presence. But for the most part, director Chris Columbus’ film is all about ushering us into Rowling’s rich world. Plus, it’s just such a hoot to see these now-established actors when they were still young unknowns. You know the story – I won’t waste your time with it here. The orphaned Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), living miserably with his oppressive aunt and uncle, discovers he’s a wizard and is whisked away to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry gets his own pet owl, whom he names Hedwig, and begins his close friendship with the towering Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who manages many of the fantastic beasts as Hogwarts’ groundskeeper. Among the creatures Harry and his friends encounter are a baby dragon named Norbert and a three-headed dog ironically named Fluffy. The Harry Potter movies improve significantly from here, but Sorcerer’s Stone is certainly a great place to start for viewers around 7 and older.