In Praise of a Muggle
"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."