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Question Club: What even is Fantastic Beasts?

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fantastic beasts

The past weekend saw the release of the much-anticipated fantasy film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest movie to take place in J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. It’s the first Rowling film to not feature Potter and his friends at all: it begins in 1926 New York City, thousands of miles and many decades away from the 1990s Britain setting of the Potter novels. It’s also the first Rowling film that isn’t based on a novel. Rowling’s book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a 42-page encyclopedia of fictional creatures in the Potterverse, written to raise money for charity. The film, scripted by Rowling, and intended as the first in a five-movie series, introduces Fantastic Beasts author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), an awkward researcher and magical beast enthusiast visiting New York, where he runs into non-magical local Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), disgraced Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), and many, many other members of the New York magical community. It’s a dense, frantic film, full of chases and fights and a weird mating dance, as Newt loses control of his briefcase full of magical creatures, and has to round them back up. The film made a decent start at the box office this weekend with a $75 million domestic take that puts it well below any previous Potter film, but well above any other movie that came out Friday. But how is Fantastic Beasts as a film?

So who is this movie for, exactly?

Kwame: I’m really struggling to figure out who this movie is aimed at. It seems like it wants to use its promise of wild CGI magical creatures to pull in a new generation of young fans who might have missed the entire Harry Potter craze of the 2000s, while also catering to Harry Potter die-hards who really want to learn more about Rowling’s wizarding world. The problem is, the kid stuff, where we spend a lot of time exploring a magical zoo in a briefcase, or chasing after creatures who really dig shiny things, doesn’t knit well with the darker themes working in the background. What did you two think?

Megan: I think you’ve nailed the biggest problem about this movie. Its audience seems to be split into the two camps you’ve described, with very little room in between. So where does that leave someone like me? I fall into no man's land.

I grew up alongside Harry Potter. He and I were the same age when I read the first book, and so it continued for the rest of the series. By the time the first film came out, I was a few years older. The world it presented felt cheesy to me in a way the novels never did. Although the films got better, they still failed to find harmony between humor and horror. There are so many horrific things happening in the Harry Potter universe at all times. But the films often lacked the nuance that J.K. Rowling had space to weave into her stories over hundreds of pages.

This is how I feel about Fantastic Beasts. It goes for the easy, kid-friendly laughs — the cute animals and the slapstick humor. A dramatic facial expression over a clever one-liner. But it stumbles in finding the balance between those easy laughs and the dark implications of the Harry Potter universe. Its adult characters feel hollow and one-dimensional, relatable for neither children nor grown-ups.

This movie isn't meant for a casual audience, it’s for the diehard fans who want to recapture that feeling: wonder and joy in the face of darkness. The kind of story that the original Harry Potter explored so well, however, is nowhere to be found.

Chaim: Like Megan said, the obvious answer to “Who is this for?” is “Harry Potter fans.” But is it for the now older 20-somethings who grew up reading the books? Is it for younger, new fans who are just coming to the series now? The main characters in Beasts aren’t kids learning magic in school, they’re adults. They have jobs and work problems, they deal with bank loans, and they live in small, cramped New York City apartments. And then the movie does go to some really dark places with the Grindelwald plot, which essentially boils down to a magical terrorist trying to manipulate an abused child for use as a destructive weapon against innocent people, which seems like a story that’s meant to attract a more mature audience.

But then all those ideas and storylines are essentially relegated to B-plots and footnotes, and we spend the bulk of the movie watching Newt and his friends run around New York City chasing down the cute, brightly colored CGI creatures that have escaped from his magical menagerie in a bunch of slapstick setpieces. Instead of moving the franchise forward, Fantastic Beasts takes a step back, burying the bones of a more mature Potter movie beneath a mountain of CGI critters.

Warner Bros.

How does it compare to the original Harry Potter saga?

Megan: Fantastic Beasts is a story about adults that manages to feel more childish than the original series. Newt has good intentions — to protect and preserve his magical creatures, and return some of them to where they belong — but he goes about it in a selfish, stupid, destructive way. His carelessness practically helps ignite a war between non-magical “No-Maj” humans and wizards. His actions seem to be explained away as part of his “eccentric” nature, but that’s a real cop-out.

Harry Potter, meanwhile, has always tackled mature topics through a youthful lens. The very first chapter of the series is about the aftermath of Voldemort murdering Harry's parents. The books touch on topics like torture, cults, slavery, hate groups, and death. It gets away with being a kids’ series because of its heroes, but even characters like Harry, Hermione, and Ron had better sense than any of the Fantastic Beasts cast.

Chaim: To me, compared to Beasts’ thin story and see-sawing tone, the original Potter series just feels richer in a way that the new film doesn’t. Maybe that’s because I’ve spent dozens of hours over the years with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, compared to the relatively short time we’ve spent getting to know Newt, Tina, and Jacob.

But I think it goes beyond just familiarity. Looking at a wider lens, Harry’s story is that of a lonely boy discovering a new world, finding friends and family, and fighting against a singular evil that tore his world apart. We get to share Harry’s wonder as he joins the wizarding world, and we understand why the battle against Voldemort is so important to him. He grows and struggles and changes over the course of the series. Meanwhile, Fantastic Beasts has the eccentric Newt Scamander at its center. His entire story involves chasing down a mole that likes jewelry, a horny glowing rhinoceros, and an invisible monkey. Looking back, I can’t really describe Newt as having a character arc at all — we’re introduced to him fully formed, and just kind of get to see him run around and do his magic creature thing.

The larger themes of the Harry Potter series come down to the powerful concepts that the strength of love and friendship can triumph over evil. How can Fantastic Beasts ever come close with a message of “environmentalism and conservation of endangered animals is important”?

Kwame: I’m not gonna lie here. I kind of enjoyed the movie, despite all its problems. There are a few reasons for that. For one, I think the supporting characters are a great deal more interesting than Newt Scamander himself. If we’re making a direct comparison to Harry Potter, Newt pales in comparison to Harry. He reads like a shallow Doctor Who knockoff full of unnecessary quirks, while Harry is a kid struggling under the weight of his fame and the horrors that come with it. But Tina, Queenie, the MACUSA wizards, Credence, and even Jacob are compelling. As cheesy and obvious as it was, I even fell for the romance between Queenie and Jacob. They’re so precious!

More than anything else, though, I think this film differs from the original Harry Potter novels and films in that it’s leaning hard on a mythology that’s already been established. The movie presumes you have at least a passing knowledge of the wizarding world. (And why not? Harry Potter is nigh ubiquitous these days.) So what I enjoyed above all else was the world-building.

We’ll get to whether this is a good or bad thing in a minute, but what gets me about this movie is that it’s almost reverse-engineering its mythology. The original Harry Potter films added new features and wrinkles to the wizarding world with every new book. We learned about things like House Elf oppression, the wizarding government, and Voldemort’s backstory over the course of seven books. Fantastic Beasts is trying to tell its own story in its own context while also spot-welding itself to a mythology we already know. Consider how much weight was given to Voldemort even before he appeared in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Save for a few asides about how evil he is, Grindelwald doesn’t get anywhere near that kind of treatment, so our investment in him as a character comes right out of what we know from the original books.

In the end, the movie feels like the Hobbit films, or Prometheus, in that it’s trying to build something epic atop an established property, using scant materials. You could theoretically tell any kind of story in this era with these characters, so long as they fit into the little we already know about the time.

Is it a problem that this feels like a thin concept resting atop an increasingly expansive fictional universe?

Megan: Look, I get it. Fantastic Beasts is an easy way to tie this story to the Harry Potter franchise. It’s a nod to J.K. Rowling’s book, which is her expanding on a textbook Harry and his friends read in school. But it feels opportunistic, rather than worthwhile. I can’t imagine this plot carrying well into any of the sequels, nor should it. If you remove Newt chasing down his animals, you still have the makings of an interesting film: tension in America between the wizarding community and No-Majs, set against the backdrop of the dark wizard Grindelwald running amok.

You could build an entire new franchise off that premise with brand-new characters, and it would probably be far more satisfying. Bringing in already-established characters means there’s no tension, no weight to their actions.

Kwame: I don’t know that I agree. Having another movie with magical creatures running around would be a mistake in my mind. But the seeds of future story beats, like Newt’s brother being a war hero, are all over the place in this movie. The trouble is, they’re in the background while we’re asked to watch an extended mating-dance ritual.

For me, this movie feels like a later-stage Marvel movie. There’s all this story that the filmmakers expect viewers to invest in, even though it will only resolve in movies two, three, four, or five. There’s content that exists entirely outside of the film, explaining American Magical History. Fantastic Beasts isn’t a movie so much as a platform for a new franchise launch.

I’ll say this, though. If the filmmakers want us to keep caring about these movies, Newt can’t be the lead. I’d be much more into a movie about Tina tracking down Dark Wizards and Grindelwald’s acolytes in America than another trip down into Newt’s luggage zoo.

Chaim: I’m on Kwame’s side: Fantastic Beasts very much feels like a movie in search of a franchise. But I’m still trying to figure out a possible purpose for Newt Scamander in four additional movies, other than to introduce more beasts further down the line. There’s tons of compelling stuff for Rowling to build off of here, but none of it is in Newt’s story.

And I’m sure Rowling can come up with plenty more ways to build out Newt’s magical menagerie further. To break it down numerically, the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them companion book has another 65-plus creatures that have yet to appear in the films. But I can’t help but think that more beasts is the wrong way to go.

What even are Obscurials?

Megan: This is the one thing in this movie I’m super into. The idea behind an Obscurial is so bleak — children who are forced to suppress their magic, whether by psychological or physical abuse, become hosts to a dark power. It’s an interesting look at what might have happened to Harry, if he’d had a few more years with the Dursleys after his magical awakening.

That being said, so uh — in America, do witches and wizards not get a special owl inviting them to school when their power pops off? Does no one come to check on these children when their powers go quiet or rampant? America: Where even the fictional wizarding schools are terrible.

Chaim: I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea of an Obscurial. As far as I can understand, it’s an effect of actively repressing children’s magic to the point where they traumatically release it as a dark, destructive force. And it’s a powerful idea as a tangible expression of the terrible consequences that neglect and abuse can cause. When Newt claims the murder of Senator Ryan was caused by an Obscurial, President Piquery is outraged — the idea that anyone would ever allow an Obscurial to come into existence is horrifying to this community.

That said, the rules governing Obscurials were clearly written to serve this movie’s plot, without any consideration of how they fit into the overall Harry Potter mythos. Also, the movie is extremely unclear about the actual mechanics here. Does the child turn into an Obscurial? Is it a separate, parasitic entity? It’s still extremely confusing.

Kwame: I love the idea of Obscurials. I’m just surprised they haven’t come up before. They seem to represent a real horror that comes with magical power. This is the inherent difficulty that comes with building on established mythology. Enriching what came before is great, but you also need to connect new material to what was already put to the page. If Obscurials aren’t uniquely American, couldn’t they have come up in the Harry Potter timeline? If not, why? Isn’t it pretty easy to imagine Muggle families being freaked out by their magical children, causing shame and confusion as they grow up? What measures were taken to prevent Obscurials from cropping up? Will we learn about them later?

Warner Bros.

Magical repression and segregation are big deals in the movie. Does it handle those concepts successfully?

Megan: Early in the film, one of the characters casually mentions that magical and non-magical folk are not allowed to carry on any sort of relationship. This line is dropped, then mostly mussed-over, as the cast scrambles to achieve whatever their goals are at the moment.

This was exceptionally frustrating to me, because the movie never really did anything with it. We see a really hollow, predictable romance budding between Jacob and Queenie, so I assume this will come up again in later films. So why bother with it at all right now? It’s a huge cultural detail that does nothing more than distract from all the other little threads the movie is desperately tugging on. I want to wave a sign that just says “CHEKHOV’S GUN” in front of everyone involved in this movie. Dump anything that isn’t relevant to the story you’re trying to tell right now!

Kwame: I know this movie takes place in an alternate universe where people can ride brooms and dragons. And I will always admire these movies’ attempt at inclusivity, featuring multiple characters of color and a few high-profile queer characters, too. But the forces of oppression being mapped onto just magic users vs. No-Maj’s feels uncomfortable, especially in an American context. Don’t get me wrong! I love that President Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) is a woman of color. I love that the movie doesn’t shy away from Grindelwald’s gay identity, and I expect to see more of that as it relates to Dumbledore in the sequel. But it being set in America, where you had things like slavery and the Trail of Tears, makes the shift feel weird. Admirable, but weird.

Chaim: The movie’s take on repression and segregation do come off a bit odd. On the plus side, at least it’s making an effort to move things in a more progressive direction when compared to the earlier Potter movies, even if it doesn’t express those ideas in a meaningful way.

Is this a good jumping-off point for four more movies?

Megan: It’s a clumsy one. Fantastic Beasts is clearly laying the groundwork for a much larger, more interesting conflict to come. The series could still be good. As it stands right now, however, I’m not invested. I don’t care about a single character they’ve already introduced, and I could do without any more magical-beast Easter egg hunts.

Chaim: I’m still curious to see where things go next. The movies can still go in a lot of potentially interesting directions, although very few of those are related to Newt and his fantastic beasts. But the tensions between the Wizarding and Muggle worlds feels like an area that’d be really interesting to explore. And even though Grindelwald is a villain, his arguments are actually compelling — it seems almost obvious that of course some members of the wizarding world would feel that it’s absurd for the powerful, magic-wielding wizards to live in hiding from the Muggles. That seems like a story that’s ripe to tell. And as someone who really, really likes Harry Potter, I’m actually walking away from Fantastic Beasts excited to see where the movies go next.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that we’re heading toward four more movies of Erumpent mating scenes, in which case count me decidedly out.

Kwame: I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing a young Albus Dumbledore in this new timeline. Remember: Dumbledore defeated Grindelwald in 1945, but spent years under Grindelwald’s thrall. Seeing him as a misguided young wizard when we’ve only known him as one of the greatest wizards of all time would be a treat. And if it were him doing an Erumpet mating dance, I think I’d get a kick out of that.