J.K. Rowling created a world rife with iconic characters in her Harry Potter saga. Harry, Ron, and Hermione have become part of literary history and pop culture as much as any Hobbit or Jedi. But when Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced with Rowling as screenwriter, many wondered if she could once again capture lightning in a bottle. Fans needn’t have worried. Featuring a different era of the wizarding world (1926 New York) with fresh protagonists, the film was a hit that rekindled the imagination of millions. While Newt Scamander’s quirks and magical heroics were endearing, I found myself most drawn to a wonderfully human character––Jacob Kowalski. Brilliantly realized through a combination of deft writing and jubilant acting, Jacob is the heart and soul of Fantastic Beasts.
SPOILER WARNING for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
In many films, the stereotypical “comedic relief” character elicits laughs at his or her own expense––little more than fools––but Rowling knows better. A World War I vet, Jacob has been busting his hump at a canning factory, but he has a dream: to open a bakery in honor of his grandma. Jacob has no designs for wealth or fame; he only wants to better his lot in life by making people happy through his passion for cooking. Jacob is the ultimate blue-collar nice guy, and he clearly has so much more to offer the world. Enter Newt Scamander.
“I ain’t got the brains to make this up.”
When a series of coincidences (or fate) introduces Jacob to Newt and the world of magic, you’d expect him to be the bumbling buffoon. Not so. Jacob becomes the vital connective tissue that bridges the audience and New York’s magical elements. Even the most ardent Harry Potter fans are in unknown territory, so we experience the mystery and wonder with Jacob: he is us––the outsider caught up in an adventure.
Jacob is not only a genuinely good and caring person, he’s also extremely capable. Despite having no magical experience or training, he approaches every situation with an open mind and kind heart. He goes with the wacky flow, offering Newt his friendship and support while ominous forces are stacked against them. Evil wizards, prejudiced No-Majs, an oppressive magical congress, and what is Jacob concerned about for much of the movie? Getting the beasts to safety. Helping. Doing what’s right. Watching Jacob assist Newt in feeding the creatures or wrangling Niffler––there’s not an ounce of enmity, doubt, or prejudice in him.
“I love house-elves. My uncle is a house-elf.”
Jacob’s relationship with the bubbly witch, Queenie, is another understated example of his progressive goodness. In a time when wizard/No-Maj relationships are taboo in the United States, Jacob and Queenie choose love over law…even though the threat of obliviate hangs over their relationship. For my money, they are the most perfectly matched couple in the Harry Potter universe.
No matter how well written a character may be on the page, an actor must still breathe life into them through emotional commitment and subtlety. Dan Fogler steals every scene as Jacob, simultaneously flexing his talents for nuance and comedic timing. Jacob’s reactions to the world of magic are priceless, a mixture of exasperation and wonder as he’s teleported, takes shots of giggle water, or explores Newt’s briefcase wildlife sanctuary. He’s always ready with a tension-splitting quip or choice moment of physical hilarity, but again, Fogler maintains a balance that never lets Jacob slip into clown territory. Whatever the situation or threat, Jacob remains an indispensable part of the team.While Fogler’s comedy is at the forefront of Fantastic Beasts, it’s the moments of heart that make Jacob real and memorable. This quality is best exemplified during his goodbye. Throughout the film, it is inevitable that Jacob will be obliviated. As a No-Maj, he’s seen too much. When that time comes, Jacob accepts that he has to forget his new friends and love, placing the greater good above his own desires. Seeing Queenie remove Jacob’s memories is a gut punch, but a final scene brings him full circle. Later when Queenie enters Jacob’s bakery, there’s recognition in his eyes, a love that transcends memory…and a promise of further adventure.
Jacob: Hey. This is for the best. Yeah. I-I was…I was never even supposed to be here. I was never supposed to know… a-any of this. Everybody knows Newt only kept me around because…Hey, Newt, why did you keep me around?
Newt: Because I like you. Because you’re my friend. And I’ll never forget how you helped me, Jacob.
Jacob Kowalski is one of J.K. Rowling’s best characters to date, a deceptively simple combination of compassion and humor that many writers try (and fail) to achieve. Jacob may not be a wizard, but he proves that even a Muggle or No-Maj can effect real change in the wizarding world. I have no idea what the future holds for Jacob, but I can’t wait to find out. Until then, raise your giggle water and say cheers to the man, the legend, the baker––Jacob Kowalski.