First they burned Witches.
Let’s get all of the ‘review bullshit’ out of the way first. I didn’t love Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. If I’m being entirely honest, I’m not sure I especially liked it all too much, either. But I did appreciate it and I absolutely admire the hell out of it.
Some history: I was a hardcore Potter fan growing up. (As an aside, what’s the preferred nomenclature for Harry Potter geek these days? HarryHead? PotterLover? NoMug?) I started reading those books when I was eight years old and kept reading voraciously right through to the horribly rushed ending that most fans still ignore to this day. I saw all of those movies in cinemas and loved them all to some degree or another, except for Goblet of Fire which I always thought was the best book and the weakest film. But when the last Potter movie came out I wasn’t eight years old anymore. I was twenty years old.
After 12 years voraciously devouring 7 books, 8 movies, at least 3 of those awful licensed video-games and countless pieces of assorted cheap plastic merchandise Harry’s story was wrapped up in every conceivable medium and I was done too.
Don’t doubt my sincerity. Done means done. When rumours of a Harry Potter play came around, I shrugged. When some assholes online moaned about Hermione being portrayed by a black actress in that play, I called them out for being assholes and shrugged again. When J.K. Rowling decided that Dumbledore was gay I’m pretty sure my entire reaction was “That’s great and all but if it’s so important to the character how did you not manage to include it in one sentence of the one million and eighty-four thousand words you wrote about that world?”. I think Rowling is great and all but fuck her. Her principles don’t mean shit if she doesn’t back them up. And to that point, I didn’t see Fantastic Beasts because I care about the Potterverse. I saw it because I see most movies and I like being part of the conversation.
So what is this conversation? How different people are drawn to enjoying stories in different ways. For instance…
I care about characters not worlds.
That’s why when everyone else is geeking out about the chance to revisit a galaxy far, far away or step back into Middle-Earth, my response tends to peak somewhere around “It was fine.” and this reaction could not apply to any universe more than that of Harry Potter. I am not the punter who gets sucked into the Wizarding World. Hell, when I travel through King’s Cross station, I literally roll my eyes at the tourists and locals who dick around getting their photos taken at the prop Platform 9 and 3/4’s. That’s precisely why I found the end of Deathly Hallows so unsatisfying. The good guys won but with a series of high profile casualties and we skip all of that to get to an entirely perfunctory ’30 years later’ epilogue? That’s weak character closure.
The characters in B£@$T$ are…fine (See?). They’re charming and pleasant and amusing when required. I didn’t buy Newt’s affection for Tina but I totally bought into Jacob’s relationship with Queenie. The villains were villainous and had more depth than fucking Voldemort, modern fiction’s most cardboard cutout of a bad guy, ever had. If this wasn’t a Potter movie, I’d be undoubtedly impressed. But it is a Potter movie, and those characters aren’t the characters I spent my most formative years with. So they’re…fine.
If I don’t love Fantastic 4 (Beasts That Need To Be Found), it’s because it’s not for me, it’s for people who love the world of Harry Potter.
So, how about that world?
Holy shit, is it impressive.
I’m gonna skirt around all of the visual aspects that blew me away, from the prototypical Potter-esque Gothic scenery and wardrobe to the technical mastery of a visual language that felt entirely removed from the previous movies. As much as I could talk about that all day, it kinda just boils down to the movie being very pretty and saying a lot with images rather than words. No, what really impressed me about the world building was actually one of the few questions I had about the movie going in: Why does it have to be set in 1920’s America? It seems like such an arbitrary choice of setting and time, why does it matter at all?
First they burned Witches.
Quick, tell me what any Harry Potter book is really about. Answer: you can’t and if you can, you’re stretching real fucking deep for something that isn’t there. It’s the fantasy novel to end all fantasy novels because it robbed from all of them. That’s not a criticism, it’s a tool that all authors use.
Quick, tell me what Fantastic Beasts is really about. Answer: if you didn’t include a term such as Muslim, Race, or LGBT in your answer it’s because you fell asleep and clearly didn’t see the fucking movie that I did. I don’t want to say that it’s specifically about Donald Trump but it’s totally about Donald Trump because…
First they burned Witches.
Then they burned gays. Then they interred the Japanese. Villainized the Koreans. And the Vietnamese. And the Russians. And now everyone I mentioned above. And because I don’t know everything about American history, there’s undoubtedly a whole lot more in between.
You might not like that I’m politicising this ‘fun fantasy romp’ but I couldn’t help but seeing it as a very political story. It’s set in New York between two great wars, the second of which was the instigator for all of the nefarious McCarthyism shit that took off in the 60’s. Don’t remember McCarthyism? It’s that period in the 50’s you learnt about in school in which American politicians actively accused a number of citizens of colluding with Communists and was arguably the 20th Century’s largest western Witch-hunt. I watched the Witch-hunt B-plot unfold in Fantastic Beasts with a serious feeling of foreboding, as if Rowling was actively using my knowledge of U.S. history to strengthen her narrative and do you know what? That shit works. Why was this movie set in 1920’s America? Because it had to be.
Oh, and if you still doubt all this, remember how outspoken Rowling herself has been regarding the President-Elect. And that she wrote this movie. What I’m saying is that she’s backing up her principles with her work and I’d like to take back that “fuck her” comment from earlier because this is what I always hoped she’d be capable of.
Did I mention that this movie is fucking dark as shit? Even if you ignore the larger implications of the main narrative, there’s themes of child abuse, brainwashing, capital punishment, totalitarianism and at least one really creepy scene that got a very legitimate jump out of me. This is easily one of the most adult kids-movies I’ve ever seen and that it manages to balance that so well with a generally pleasant addition to the Potter universe is nothing short of admirable.
So, no, I don’t love Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. And I don’t especially like it. But I’m impressed by it. There’s no other franchise revival on this level (read: budget) that’s come out of the Hollywood sausage factory loaded with something to say.
And if you want to find a fantastic beast, you don’t need to look for a magical creature. There might be one just outside spouting horrible hateful rhetoric. If nothing else, that’s a damn sight more than I can say about Star Wars or The fucking Hobbit.
Agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments, below!