Those of you who have been paying attention will have spotted this post that went live yesterday morning, containing photographs of notes taken by Mitchell in the cinema as we watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (IMDB). The release date allowed us just enough time to see it together before he goes back home tomorrow. Now we’ve had time to put this together, enjoy our full rambling review. Spoilers later.
It probably won’t surprise any of you that Mitchell and I had pretty different views of the film by the end. We both picked out the same issues with it – spoiler, there were a lot of issues with it – but I’m far more willing to overlook most of them than he is. I’m more forgiving of bad writing in films than I am in books, too. Though we both hated the ending.
[I don’t actually think we disagree on much of anything, except how much we’re willing to forgive. I found this film utterly infuriating overall, while Loten enjoyed it, but when we started comparing complaints we found they were pretty much identical.]
If you go into this film with the right mindset, it’s mostly a lot of fun. Just don’t expect miracles. A lot of it makes no sense, there are some bad plotholes, and a lot of it is wildly inconsistent even by the already inconsistent rules of the Potterverse. But it’s pretty, and mostly silly in a good way, and has some cute moments.
[Here’s a quick attempt at a spoiler-free review for anyone who wants that. Overall, this is the sort of film that can be mindless fun if you like that sort of thing, but definitely don’t forget to switch off your brain before watching or you’ll be heavily disappointed. The core conceit of “absentminded zoologist loses magical monsters in New York City, needs to track them down, chaotic shenanigans ensue” is reasonably fun and the creatures are visually interesting (and the way they move is mostly well done too, the CGI is pretty good). Those parts are mostly fine, and we’d have liked the film much better if they’d just stuck to that (I’d probably have still complained about it being pointless, but that’s really just a matter of CGI slapstick not being my genre). But they decided it had to have an overarching plot beyond that, so they shoehorned in political intrigue and personal drama (and cringe-inducing “romances”) and very forced connections to Grindelwald and so on, and those things… just didn’t really work, and created so many issues that could have been easily avoided.]
Spoilers below the cut:
[The way things worked out, Mitchell ended up writing most of this, so despite this being ‘my’ post my thoughts will be in italics this time.]
So let’s do a quick overview of the plot of this film, before I just keep ranting about various miscellany.
Basically, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne [professional adorable dork]), wizard zoologist, comes to New York City for vaguely unspecified reasons (which do eventually get revealed). Some of his creatures get loose and he ends up on the wrong side of the law (Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a disgraced auror, and her former boss Mr No-First-Name Graves (Colin Farrell)), because magical creatures are banned in New York as a risk to secrecy (how they enforce this is unclear since the things are everywhere). Tina (whose full name is apparently Porpentina), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and a random Muggle who aspires to be a baker, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) get caught up in things as they try to retrieve the escaped monsters, and lots of slapstick and ‘comedic’ scenarios ensue. At the same time, there’s some vague conspiracy stuff going on with a cultish woman who runs an orphanage (character name Mary Lou Barebone, played by Samantha Morton) but also believes in and hates/fears witches and runs an anti-witch advocacy group called the New Salem Philanthropic Society, or the New Salemers. Graves (who I call ’emotional abuse cop’ in my notes) is cultivating some kind of relationship with one of the orphan boys, Credence (Ezra Miller), asking him to “find the child” (there’s some blather about a prophecy); the creepiness is well done but it’s really unclear what his goals are.
Shenanigans ensue, there are hints that there’s some other magical creature wreaking havoc in NY in addition to the ones Newt lost, while Graves is trying to frame Newt as scapegoat to conceal that (though in fairness Newt is legitimately suspicious and does actually have captive monsters that are similar to the thing causing the problem, so that mostly works). There’s some more conspiracist stuff where Graves is obviously corrupt and (somehow) gets Newt and Tina sentenced to death for secrecy violations (because that’s something American wizarding law permits?). Magical America never read the Evil Overlord List and so the sentence is to be carried out by some kind of elaborate nonsensical deathtrap (more on this later), which they narrowly escape (of course), and continue their investigation.
The culprit turns out to be something called an “obscurial”, which is apparently a parasite that attaches itself to a child whose magic has been suppressed? (I found myself wondering if this was supposed to be what actually happened to Ariana Dumbledore in canon…) [There’s some linguistic confusion in the terminology; I THINK that the parasite is an obscurus and the host child is an obscurial, but the film wasn’t interested in explaining properly. They couldn’t even decide if the parasite was a separate entity or if it was created by the child somehow.] Anyway, it’s not entirely clear how this thing is supposed to work, but it sort of feeds on the emotions of the child and causes havoc when they get agitated (it seems to manifest as a sort of swirling cloud of angry black handkerchiefs?) [I almost thought it was a Dementor at first].
This is the thing that Graves is looking to take advantage of (for… reasons? [this is explained later, sort of]), and also the thing he’s been emotionally abusing Credence into trying to find for him; the film actually does a pretty decent fakeout, in that it’s been continually showing one of the orphanage girls chanting creepily about witches being killed in various ways with incredibly creepy unemotional expressions on her face, so I thought it was going to be her for a while. Nope, turns out Credence himself is the host, and between being physically abused by Mary Lou and emotionally abused by Graves, he snaps and goes on a rampage (he seems to be sort of in control of the cloud of death napkins?) [or to turn into the cloud of death napkins and back again, it’s not really clear].
Newt and entourage eventually figure this out, try to talk him down, and there’s a confrontation with Graves (they’re trying to talk Credence down while simultaneously fighting with Graves; Tina gets to be the one to do most of the talking because women are empathy or some sexist bullshit – or at least that’s the implication, they didn’t say explicitly [to be fair, Tina had met Credence before where Newt hadn’t]), Graves starts using Force Lightning on Newt (seriously, that’s what it looks like, I’ve no idea what else to call it because it just isn’t consistent with Potterverse magic), keeping him incapacitated until the President shows up with a bunch of people and they all shoot spells at the Credence-monster and blow it to smithereens (which conveniently still just looks like a bunch of handkerchiefs). Then Newt somehow uses a revealing spell? on Graves and it turns out – dun dun dun – he’s actually Grindelwald (which makes no sense). He gets taken away by some of the President’s people.
There’s much talk about how much damage has been done and how this will force the magical society to be revealed, what a huge tragedy this will be (for reasons), and that this was apparently what Graves/Grindelwald actually wanted to accomplish (for… reasons?). Much panic. Until Newt hits on the solution: he’ll use one of his monsters (some kind of thunderbird thing, which he’d been talking about wanting to release to its native Arizona earlier in the film, that’s the actual reason he came to the US) to create a storm which will distribute the magical venom of another of his monsters (which conveniently has ‘powerful obliviative properties’) to make all the Muggles forget everything. This apparently works, despite there being no sensible mechanism by which it would, and incredibly conveniently makes them forget only what they need to forget and doesn’t leave all of New York an amnesiac mess.
We get a triumphant montage of wizards walking through the streets of New York in the downpour (which doesn’t affect them somehow, I guess?), repairing all the damage the monsters have done and reassembling all the buildings, etc. This legitimately looks really nice, but I found the triumphant music really jarring considering they’re celebrating erasing the minds of an entire city’s populace. Much angst ensues when the President insists Jacob must also forget everything because that’s the law (there’s been a romance subplot between him and Queenie which I’ve been ignoring because it infuriated me, plus he’s been coming to enjoy being part of the magical world), but he conveniently decides he’s okay with forgetting and walks out into the rain while the others watch. (Queenie kisses him after he’s started forgetting, which seemed really skeezy and questionable consent-wise to me.) MELODRAMA! EMOTIONS! TRAGEDY!
Except miraculously everything turns out fine! Newt anonymously gives Jacob the startup money he’d needed for his bakery (in silver Occamy eggshells, which the Muggle bank will apparently not ask questions about? and also Jacob shouldn’t know their value after losing his memory?), and he apparently remembers just enough that he starts making pastries in the shape of magical creatures (which was admittedly kind of cute) and is incredibly successful. The film ends with Queenie going into his shop and him sort-of recognising her with the implication they’ll end up together anyway. And also a few scenes with Tina and Newt where there’s some forced romance at the last minute because everyone must be paired I guess? Anyway she’s been reinstated in her job and wants to read his book once it’s published, and he promises to deliver her copy in person.
I’ve glossed over a few things in there, which I’ll probably end up ranting about soon enough anyway, but that’s the gist of the film anyway. Let’s move on and pick it apart in more detail.
To start with, you can definitely tell this film is milking its connection to the Potterverse for all it’s worth. Some of it’s done decently well, but some of it is pretty forced (I’ve honestly never been fond of the super-dramatic theme song the Harry Potter films were given, for instance, so opening with that put me on the back foot immediately). […I like the theme…] I don’t quite dislike it, I just don’t think it fits the Potterverse at all.
One of the subtler things is an early scene where Mary Lou asks Newt “are you a seeker after truth” and he responds with “more of a chaser, really”. Loten liked that this was clearly meant as a nod to the audience and that the film didn’t hold your hand and explain the joke, while my reaction was a bit different, as you may be able to tell by my having scribbled BAD QUIDDITCH PUNS in capslock. [Ironic, considering he likes bad puns and I usually don’t.] Honestly, I think the operative word is quidditch, I like puns normally but that seems to override it.
One thing that confused me early on (and later irritated me) is that, in the proudest Harry Potter tradition, this film does not seem to know how governments work. The term “MACUSA” (Magical Congress of the USA) seems to be used as a catchall term for all magical society in the US, or something. They also consistently pronounce it to rhyme with “yakuza”, which is… interesting. I was initially very confused when Tina arrests Newt and introduces herself saying something like “I’m with MACUSA” and showed an ID. So, naturally, I assumed she was meant to be a Congresswoman and found it very odd she was making an arrest, because that’s not what legislators do; it’s later explained that she’s actually an Auror (or former Auror, having recently been suspended or fired or something), which leads me to believe that whoever wrote this does not know what Congress is and couldn’t be bothered to find out. DO YOUR FUCKING RESEARCH.
It’s obvious they were writing this as if it were taking place in Potterverse Britain and just substituting “MACUSA” for “Ministry of Magic” wherever appropriate, and strictly speaking I don’t object to there being a “Magical Congress” but it really does not make sense to use that as a catchall term for the entire magical government in the same way as “The Ministry” does (I think it might’ve made more sense to just have a “department” or “agency” or something, if they’d wanted to do it that way; you can still have a Congress as legislative body, if you want to have magical clones of the US government, but it would make a lot more sense not to give it other duties than Congress actually has).
[I was going to speculate that this is a nationality thing, but it never bothered me that the British Ministry similarly misuses words that have different meanings in the Muggle world. At least it’s not explicitly claiming that the magical version is superior to the lowly Muggles…]
Speaking of governments, here, have another rant. The “President of the Magical Congress” (yes, this is actually how it’s rendered on IMDB, because incoherent mashups of different branches of government are what everyone wanted) is Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo) – though as far as I know her name is never actually mentioned in the film [I don’t think she’s named out loud but it definitely shows up in newspaper shots]; more saliently, she is a woman of colour. Who is referred to as Madam President. TOO SOON. TOO FUCKING SOON.
Honestly, that hit me in the feels in a way I found almost triggering, though obviously the film was made long enough ago that they couldn’t have anticipated Trump being elected and put this in deliberately to taunt us over what we could have had (I did wonder if they were expecting Clinton to win and put this in as a nod to her). [I’m not sure they even knew who the candidates would be when this was written, honestly. It’s probably just coincidence.] Regardless, I found myself cringing every time the phrase ‘Madam President’ was used. But this one’s probably on me, not on the film.
[I’d also like to give some major side-eye to Seraphina Picquery as a name; it instantly made me think of Serafina Pekkala, the leader of the witches in the His Dark Materials books. Bit too close a match in my opinion.]
Though if I want to get meta, there is something else troubling about it. Having a woman of colour as President in the 1920s just shouts the same message as we get elsewhere in Potter canon about how much better and more progressive etc wizards are than nonmagical folk. Yet at the same time, the film shows American wizarding society to be even more paranoid and insular (it is literally illegal to have any kind of ongoing interaction with non-magical people, and there is also an explicit law against marrying them). Now truthfully I’m not entirely sure how realistic that is for the 1920s, as I’m not too familiar with social attitudes at that time – it’s well before Japanese internment happened, but also before Loving v. Virginia (I did wonder if the law against intermarriage was a deliberate nod to actual laws forbidding interracial marriage), so I can imagine it being an outgrowth of typical American attitudes of the time. But if you’re going to do that, you don’t get to AT THE SAME TIME signal about how much more wonderfully progressive you are. That is hypocrisy of the first order and you can bet I noticed it.
[You can forgive this on a story level – if the magical society is so completely isolated from the Muggles (No-Majs sounds stupid and we refuse to say it) then there’s no reason why they’d have picked up the prevalent issues around race and gender. But it’s still somewhat jarring. Particularly since the president is literally the only non-white character in the entire film, barring a single shot of some assorted international diplomat types.]
Our biggest complaint about the film is undoubtedly the obvious shoehorning in of Grindelwald at the end, because it doesn’t add much of anything to the plot (except, presumably, a hook for the sequels so they can continue to milk this cash cow) and creates a lot of plot holes that wouldn’t otherwise have existed. As I said in the summary, Graves is revealed at the end to have been Grindelwald in disguise. We don’t know how the disguise works – it can’t have been Polyjuice because Newt cancels it with a spell, but the film doesn’t actually tell us what it was. Secondly, Grindelwald was presumably leading military operations and causing havoc and such in eastern Europe, so it’s hard to understand how he could just bugger off to America without anyone noticing he’s gone.
And then there’s the question of timelines – how long has Grindelwald been missing/disguised, exactly? How long has he been working as an Auror in New York that he’s apparently risen to a prominent position, and established relationships in the community (Tina clearly has been working with him a while, and he’s known Credence a while though we’re not told much about their history). Or are we expected to believe that Graves was a real person whose identity Grindelwald stole; if so, when did he do that, how did he avoid suspicion for so long, and what happened to the real Graves?
Likewise, it’s really not clear what his plans were or why he’d go about them in the way he did. If it was just Graves, it might make some kind of sense that if he wanted to expose the wizarding world, he’d do it by proxy with a magical creature so it wouldn’t be connected to him and he could keep his job. But when it’s Grindelwald, we just found ourselves wondering why he wouldn’t just cast a few spells in public or send some followers to do it, if that was what he wanted. There’s no need to go to convoluted lengths when there are much simpler ways of accomplishing that goal. If the writers absolutely insisted on keeping the Grindelwald connection, I think it would have even been a big improvement to just have Graves be a follower of his, or perhaps an aspiring follower trying to prove himself? But truthfully the plot makes a lot more sense without the connection at all, if Graves is just a corrupt official who has his own reasons for wanting the wizarding world to go public and has been working toward that in secret.
[It was pretty obviously a last-minute decision, since although it’s sort-of foreshadowed in an earlier scene where Graves gives Credence an amulet with the Deathly Hallows on it, that could just as easily indicate that he agrees with Grindelwald rather than that he actually is Grindelwald. One also wonders why Grindelwald himself would be that bloody obvious. And why MACUSA has no security capable of detecting a high-level employee wearing a magical disguise. Also, of course, the decision to make the guy Grindelwald all along means we get Johnny Wifebeater Depp. Oy.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, according to some sources Graves’ first name is apparently Percival, though neither of us saw or heard this anywhere in the film. This means that Grindelwald chose to use one of Dumbledore’s many names as his alias. Good grief.]
While I’m loath to talk about it, at some point I should probably address the character of Queenie and her romance with Jacob (ugh). I really disliked Queenie as a character, she’s a bizarre amalgam of hyperfeminine stereotypes executed in cringeworthy fashion, though she at least does end up being something of an actual character in the end? In the scene in which she’s introduced, she’s in some state of undress at her and Tina’s apartment when Tina comes in with the men (so we can get a bizarre scene of her levitating a dress onto herself), and she constantly talks in this irritating breathy tone of voice that I absolutely despise but probably comes across as alluring to a certain kind of man? (Alison Sudol, if this is your natural voice I’m very very sorry.)
And the first scene we see her in has her being very obviously flirtatious and thrilled to meet men, which is always such a wonderful thing to see in a female character (please note sarcasm). On top of that, she is some kind of natural Legilimens, despite it not functioning anything like legilimency does in the books: there doesn’t seem to be any eye contact necessary or any effort required, and it seems to be a passive ability she can’t turn off (she says as much to Jacob at one point). And then there’s a gag about how she has a much harder time reading Newt’s mind because he’s British and the accent gets in the way (?). Yes, that’s absolutely how accents work, film.
She does get a few good moments, not everything she does is cringeworthy, but overall I just found her incredibly irritating. (In one of her better scenes, she prevents a man from opening Newt’s luggage by saying it contains “feminine products” and “innocently” asking if he wants to see, I did appreciate that one.)
[This is one area where we tend to disagree. I actually liked her, although I can see the problems with the character. It would definitely have been better for them to have not used the various tropes in the first place, but since they made that decision I think they handled it well enough – she gets to actively do things, and is often more proactive and more useful than her Auror sister (I didn’t keep a spell count, but a lot of the cast were really bad at remembering they had magic and Tina was useless deadweight in need of rescuing for the first two thirds or so of the whole film).
I didn’t mind Queenie’s voice either – as I’m writing this now I realise she actually reminds me a lot of one or both of the protagonist’s witch aunts in Sabrina The Teenage Witch, which I adored growing up, which probably somewhat explains it. I don’t know if they were trying for sex appeal or not – it doesn’t read as sexy to me so I’m not sure if that was the intent, but I did really like that there was no slut-shaming. She often flirts with various male characters, either just because or as part of a distraction, and as far as I recall there’s no judgement from anyone about it, which drastically helps with the otherwise problematic tropes involved in the character.
As for the Legilimency, while I wish they had called it something else because we’ve been explicitly told multiple times in the Potterverse that Legilimency IS NOT mind-reading, I found that an interesting concept that they could have done some fun things with if they’d explored it at all. She can read the thoughts of everyone around her, constantly, and has no way to turn it off. That has a lot of potential they ignored.]
So, the romance with Jacob. It seems to revolve primarily around her reading his mind and the fact that he’s nonmagical being a curiosity to her (she goes on several times about how she’s never met one before). In their very first meeting she says something to him along the lines of “don’t be embarrassed, most men think that sort of thing when they meet me” – a trope I hate at the best of times, though at least they didn’t go to the absolute worst Nice Guy validation version (which adds something like “but you’re so wonderful for only thinking it and not sexually assaulting me”). So I guess on his end it’s a combination of finding her attractive, and being curious about magic? In fairness to the film, they do also show a shared interest in cooking, though that’s also used to hammer home the MAGIC IS BETTER ALWAYS message (she makes a strudel form itself instantly in midair, and he says it’s better than he can make) which I found troubling on several levels.
Once again we have a woman being good at a traditionally feminine thing, which is irritating but not necessarily inherently problematic from a feminist perspective, but on top of that this just ends up looking like a very unequal relationship: not only does she have magic where he doesn’t, and the ability to read his mind, she’s also conveniently better than him at the thing his life revolves around which he wants to make a career of (and there was no discussion of collaboration either, which could have made it work). I can’t help thinking it’s along the lines of wanting to keep him as a pet. They really needed to do more work developing this, I think, in order for it not to have been creepy, but I just don’t think they cared. It’s not helped, again, by the weirdly nonconsensual (?) kiss as he’s losing his memory, and their reunion in the ending which suggests they might rekindle a relationship – except now it’s even more unbalanced because she remembers things he won’t.
[We both acknowledged that it was pretty cute onscreen, the actors work well together and there were quite a few sweet moments, but it’s hard to see much long-term potential. I personally think that’s more because we weren’t shown enough – it all seemed rather rushed, and in particular it annoyed me throughout that Jacob accepted all this weird shit insanely quickly because there wasn’t enough screentime for him to have any doubts whatsoever. I thought he was a pretty under-used character, I’ve always liked stories that try to explore what it’s like to be the only one without (insert special thing here) and they didn’t touch on it at all.
I liked the start of their relationship but it needed far more development to have really worked. I also absolutely loathe the ending, where the president orders that Jacob be Obliviated along with all the other Muggles despite him helping basically save the city – that on its own would be bad enough, but our heroes all go along with this and Jacob himself is fine with it, despite there being approximately three thousand ways they could have got him away from it and let him keep his memories. I’m choosing to believe that the final scene with Queenie and his near-recognition of her implies that his memories will return, and you can’t stop me.]
One last thing about Queenie: it occurs to me that if she’s been living in New York (a very populous city even then) and is incapable of turning her “legilimency” off, she really shouldn’t consider Jacob such a novelty. Surely she goes to shops and things, she has to get food and the like somewhere? If nothing else, she must encounter Muggles just walking down the street and catch their thoughts here and there… (I guess it’s theoretically possible that magical America/magical New York is a bit better structured and could actually function as a completely separate society, and has its own shops and everything? Unlike Diagon Alley, which conspicuously sells only explicitly magical goods. But if this is the case, the film gives no evidence of it; if wizards are keeping to themselves to the point they can go through life never encountering Muggles at all, it’s certainly not what we’re shown.) Regardless, her telepathic abilities were very conspicuously not thought through, and I do think this is a serious plot hole.
[Agreed. There’s a reason why powerful telepath characters are all reclusive hermits who try to avoid being around people too often, so just the fact that she lives in New York is an issue, but we see nothing of the area they live in and no indication of whether there’s a magical enclave anywhere or if they’ve achieved the total integration that Rowling once pretended she was writing.
Also, while we’re on the subject of romances etc and one of the female main characters, this film does not pass Bechdel as far as we can tell. I’m sure nobody is surprised.]
Enough about that, let’s talk about better things?
The best parts of the film, I think, are the scenes that take place inside Newt’s luggage. The first half of the film or so revolves around creatures escaping from his luggage and causing havoc while he tries to track them down (this is how he runs afoul of the others, they get entangled in it and they start working together). At one point he and Jacob go inside the suitcase, and it’s revealed to be a huge laboratory/menagerie/terrarium kind of thing with various habitats, where he keeps various magical creatures (revealing they haven’t just been stuffed inside a suitcase). This provides a convenient opportunity for the CGI team to show all sorts of magical creatures (it really does look nice), as well as for Newt to exposit about them and actually come off as competent for once (prior to this he really was just a bumbling fool letting monsters loose and incompetently chasing them, there’s a reason I called it an idiot plot), showing his knowledge of the creatures and also that he clearly cares deeply about them.
In particular, there are some nice scenes with these plant-mantis things [they’re meant to be Bowtruckles, despite not looking anything like the descriptions from the Harry Potter series] that are clearly attached to him, and the thunderbird [named Frank, which is just cute] he tells Jacob about rescuing and rehabilitating, and wanting to return to Arizona which is apparently the species’ natural habitat (this is a bit spoilt by the fact he decides to release it in New York later for plot reasons, which led us to wonder whether it would be able to live there and/or find its way to a suitable habitat, but credit for trying I guess?). Anyway, the luggage-workshop-menagerie is genuinely well-designed visually, and also does a lot of good characterisation work for Newt as a sort of well-meaning mad scientist type who does have real expertise.
[It also gave Jacob a chance to shine a bit. He proved surprisingly competent and adaptable, and after the first understandable ‘wtf’ reaction he helped out with the animals and was clearly having a blast. It was cute. And a rare instance of a fat character who wasn’t comic relief.]
I will complain that they copied Hagrid’s backstory identically for Newt – apparently he was thrown out of Hogwarts due to a mishap with a magical creature, but Dumbledore vouches for him. Nothing inherently wrong with this, exactly, except that it’s been used before and Newt is such an absentminded professor stereotype that he really ought to have some sort of academic credential. On the other hand, they can’t seem to decide from scene to scene whether he’s meant to be absentminded but clever or an absolutely incompetent bumbling oaf, so it’s not completely clear what stereotype they were going for.
[I did find Newt’s general incompetence rather poorly handled. There’s a difference between the absent-minded carelessness they were trying to go for and the flailing idiocy we actually see; the guy hunts monsters for a living and if he was as inept as he seems in most of the film he’d have died horribly a long time ago. He’s overcome at various points by a Muggle (Jacob) smacking him in the head with a suitcase and running away, by outright dropping his wand more than once, by being disarmed by a monkey… he’s also apparently incapable of actually catching half his creatures, and noticeably can’t manage wandless magic at any point, which is an issue for someone who’s disarmed as often as he is. That aside, I liked his character overall.]
Regarding Newt’s lack of degree, I’ve been thinking a bit more about it and it really does make me wonder about some things. There’s a pretty strong anti-intellectual and anti-education (not always precisely the same thing) element in American culture, and if Rowling were an American author I’d definitely think it was meant to play into that. You see this even in the admiration of certain intellectuals – there are persistent myths about people like Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison having dropped out or flunked out of conventional schooling, for instance, which seem to be mostly untrue (Einstein is known to have complained about the uselessness of rote learning in conventional schooling, but achieved a degree and had quite an extensive career in academia; Edison seems to have been largely self-educated but I can’t seem to find any corroboration of the myths), and you have e.g. Mark Twain saying things like “I never let schooling get in the way of my education” which is often interpreted as broadly anti-education rather than merely an indictment of American schools.
My point being that if Rowling were American, I’d think Newt Scamander had been modelled after this mythic example, an academic outsider who has no use for traditional schooling and ends up proving himself better for not having it (mercifully the phrase “common sense” never made an appearance in this film, but in many such stories it will do). I’m tempted to call this the “George W Bush effect”, in that it’s very similar to the people who admired him specifically for being “an ordinary guy you could have a beer with” (never mind that he was a wealthy legacy student at Yale, he got effectively failing grades and affects rural mannerisms so he must be one of the common folk!). But I don’t think British culture has quite the same view of people who are conspicuously non-intellectuals. Nevertheless, it’s still rather curious that so many of Rowling’s favourites are people who flunk out or do poorly at school (only Hermione really seems to be exempt, and she’s mainly in the stories as walking exposition device).
[Yeah, Britain is moving steadily towards academia as the thing you do – it’s rare now for college students not to go on to university, even though a lot of degrees prove to be pretty worthless later on. If anything the emphasis is on which particular school or university you go to – the assumption is that obviously you went to one, but was it an impressive one? So I don’t know what Rowling’s issue is here either, particularly since she has a degree herself, but we see it over and over again – none of her favourites like school and mostly do pretty badly, and a lot of them flunk out.]
[You’ve probably noticed that while we’ve talked about Newt, Jacob and Queenie, we haven’t really mentioned Tina. And that’s because there’s honestly nothing to mention. We learned nothing about her during the entire film, really; she has very little personality. She was also completely useless for most of it, and required rescuing at least twice due to forgetting she could do magic – that would be bad enough on its own but then in the finale she got into a duel with Grindelwald himself and was actually somewhat competent, so you just wonder what the hell was wrong with her for the first hour or so. Another reason I liked Queenie – she was just better by comparison.
The ‘romance’ with her and Newt was nonexistent until the final five minutes when Newt was boarding the steamer to go back to England. Or maybe it was a train, we honestly can’t remember. The two of them were cute and awkward for that single conversation, but there was nothing in their interactions prior to this one scene and it just wasn’t believable – they were acting as though they’d been told to go through the motions.
There was also a brief bit of nonsense earlier in the film where Queenie read some crap from Newt’s mind and he might have had a thing at school with Lena (Leda?) Lestrange, which the writers clearly hoped would be a big romantic drama plot, but he didn’t want to talk about it and nobody mentioned it again until the farewell scene where he essentially said it didn’t matter. I have no idea why this was included.]
Weirdly, I don’t think I minded Tina so much, but I can’t deny she was a pretty hollow character. She worked well as a more serious foil for Newt, and I think the actress did a good job with the material she was given, but there’s honestly not a whole lot more to the character than that. And there is really no excuse for her general incompetence in the first two-thirds or so of the film, especially when you contrast that with the scenes where she actually does manage to accomplish things. She generally does a good job of keeping up a competent and serious demeanor, so that’s clearly who we’re meant to believe the character is, it’s just belied in many cases by her actions or lack thereof. I’m reminded of the “are you a witch or not?” exchange from Philosopher’s Stone, because Tina seems to quite often forget she has magic – though she’s far from the only character in this film to do so, it’s a common ailment – but doesn’t have the excuse of being a Muggleborn newcomer like first-year Hermione did. When Philosopher’s Stone is doing characterisation better than your story, you know something is deeply wrong.
There is a very bizarre scene in which Tina and Newt are sentenced to immediate execution over their secrecy violation; I honestly found it quite horrifying, or at least the early parts where they’re being held at wandpoint and being marched off at Graves’ orders, before we see how the actual execution is meant to be carried out. That scene, and their implausible escape from it (because of course it’s a Bond villain style deathtrap), ends up being so ludicrous and bizarre that it overwhelms the chilling aspects. I will admit that aspects of it remain thoroughly creepy, so that’s probably a success of the writing, such as it is, but I don’t think there’s any way to make it make sense. (Also, if you read the notes I scribbled during the film, you’ll note that I was aghast at the implausibility of it: a kill spell exists, why on earth would they use bizarre arcane deathtraps?)
Apparently, execution in 1920s Magical America is done via something called “death potion”, which is a huge pool of churning blackish-silvery liquid, over which is suspended a chair that clearly was designed to resemble the electric chair (I found that quite disturbing actually, and had to look up some of the history of the electric chair to see if it was plausible to be referencing such a thing in the 1920s, but it isn’t really an anachronism as the chair was invented in the 1880s and first used in 1890; still, it’s a bit odd for wizards to be aping something so recent). It gets weirder: we see them start the procedure on Tina, they use some kind of memory magic to remove a memory from her and cast it into the potion, which starts showing the memory and apparently this makes her more amenable to dying (there’s a lot of creepy “isn’t this nice? don’t you want to join them?” dialogue from one of the executioners) or at least stop resisting. Then she is put in the chair and it begins to lower into the potion, which we see actually eating away at the metallic-looking chair as if it were acid; she’s helped to jump to safety at the last possible moment, of course (I don’t recall all the details that well to be truthful), while waves rise up out of the liquid to try to engulf her (I do recall her being surrounded by the stuff and puzzling at the mechanics of her escape).
Lots of things bother me about this, which I’ll get into momentarily, although there’s also a silver lining I think. The creepy dialogue and the (presumably) family members encouraging a living person to die seems to have been intended to be horrific rather than noble, which I think undermines rather well the ending of Deathly Hallows. This scene really does parallel Harry’s parents encouraging him to walk to his death to an uncanny level, and I find myself wondering if someone managed to sneak that in as commentary (or if Rowling’s just decided to contradict herself again, as she often does).
But this also raises a lot of other questions: where are they getting all of these silverish chairs, for instance, and why use the chair at all rather than just throwing the person in the death pool? (Obviously the Doylist explanation is that the chair is there to draw uncomfortable parallels for the audience, but that doesn’t explain it in-story.) And, again, why not just use bloody Avada Kedavra? (There is a similar problem in the books as regards the use of Dementors and their Kiss, so it’s perhaps naive to have expected any better, but I think this is worse.)
[Yeah, I got nothing. I found the trap to be very creepy, but that’s honestly the only reason it was there – well, that and the fact that the method needed to be drawn out so there was time for Queenie to ‘hear’ that her sister was in danger, rescue Jacob and come to meet Tina and Newt (who got free by getting his Bowtruckle to pick the lock on his handcuffs. Yes, handcuffs. These are not very magical wizards). A society that is choosing creepy drawn-out methods of executing people is a society that has become a batshit dictatorship, which isn’t what we saw. It wasn’t needed – they could simply have been put back in a cell while the executioner was sent for. But DRAMA.]
And then, with the knowledge that Graves was really Grindelwald (sigh), there are other things to think about. Is it normal in this society for police chiefs (or whatever Graves is, I don’t think his position was ever explicitly stated or named) to condemn people to summary executions and have it carried out immediately, or was that meant to be a hint that something wasn’t right, that it was Grindelwald perverting the system somehow? If this isn’t normal, does he have the executioners and/or other people under Imperius or similar mental domination, to explain why they carry out his orders without question, and possibly also their inhumanly creepy dialogue? Presumably we’re not meant to be thinking about any of this.
There’s a pretty random subplot about Muggle politics that ends up being largely irrelevant. There’s barely any interaction between this and the major characters, but it’s presented in a way that seems like it’s meant to be important, then the film largely forgets about it as it heads into its climax and it’s left completely out of the ending resolution. There are a few scenes in which we meet Senator Henry Shaw and his father and brother (the father seems to run a newspaper and I think the brother is a journalist?); Shaw is preparing to run for President and we see him holding a rally, he begins to give a rather heavy-handed pro-Prohibition speech (I’m not really sure what if anything the film was trying to say here, or if they were just trying to remind us it was 1926) and gets killed by the obscurial. There’s a bit of talk amongst the wizards about how big an exposure risk this is, at which point they start to take the threat more seriously, but after that the plotline seems to have just gotten dropped. Presumably Shaw was still dead at the end of the film: I was left wondering how the convenient memory magic of the ending was going to handle that, as he clearly had a family and constituency who would be aware of his death and want it investigated (even if they forgot all the events of the film, there would still be a disconnect where they remembered supporting this guy and suddenly he just vanished).
[One assumes they’re going to somehow implant false memories that the guy had a heart attack or something, but there’s the issue of the corpse. It looked pretty normal to me, just a bit shrivelled, but Newt was freaking out and shouting that clearly you can recognise the marks of an obscurus attack so apparently it doesn’t look natural. I guess if they can somehow magically change all the newspapers from the past few days, which was shown in the ending montage, then they can tell everyone they’ve already buried the senator, but nobody ever mentioned it.]
Let’s have a quick aside and talk about goblins (the reason I found myself writing JEEEEEEWS in my notes, though maybe it ought to have been some plural form of Shylock). It’s been pointed out that Potterverse goblins are very obviously an exaggeration of Jewish stereotypes (the enormous hooked noses, the dark beady eyes, handling all the money, being considered greedy), and that’s really not the sort of thing that ever ends well. It’s just about possible to ignore it, honestly, if you’re not sensitised to it – I’m Jewish and didn’t really start seeing it until it was pointed out to me – but once you see it it’s nearly impossible to unsee. And this film really doesn’t help.
There are actually a lot of goblins in this film, though it rarely ends up mattering to anything, they just show up in the background in a lot of scenes to indicate “this is a magical area”. I couldn’t really work out what the film was trying to say with that (in part because I’m not sure whether it was meant to be a commentary on Jews or not: New York Jews are a bit of a stereotype and it definitely has a much larger Jewish population than Britain, and we saw goblins in lots of non-banking roles seeming to be treated as a normal part of magical society, but I genuinely wasn’t sure if we were supposed to read a parallel into that). There’s also one scene in what’s presumably meant to be a magical speakeasy (?) where Newt has to negotiate a bribe with a shady goblin information dealer (who, of course, smokes cigars and is stereotypically greedy and miserly) to get some plot-relevant bit. And naturally, of course, he’s an antagonist and Newt is forced to cheat him, continuing a grand Potterverse tradition of protagonists cheating and abusing goblins and then wondering why the hell goblins don’t trust wizards and rebel so goddamn often.
[It might also just be that goblins are easier to create on film; there was a noticeable lack of magical races otherwise. There was one house elf behind the bar in the speakeasy, and a singer who was something vaguely nonhuman, and a few goblins. Pretty boring, honestly.]
I’m not sure how to try to conclude this post, or even if I really should; most of this has just been a bunch of disconnected ranting about various issues I had with the film.
What, overall, are my conclusions about the film? I can’t even be sure if it was better or worse than my expectations, because I think in different categories it’s been both: the parts of the film that focused on magical creatures, their odd behaviours, and the struggles to retrieve them were a lot better than I expected them to be and did have their charm (not to mention looking pretty and being well-choreographed), but the rest of it was incredibly stupid and incoherent and drove me to distraction, to the point I had a hard time enjoying the parts that were actually good. I think Loten more or less agrees with me on this but was able to focus more on the silliness and the good character moments (the actors did a solid job with what they were given, overall), and so ended up enjoying the film overall in spite of all the awful. In conclusion, all I can say is your mileage will definitely vary.
We did think it interesting that the story told in this film would be very difficult to do in prose/book form; it is definitely a very visual sort of story and the visual effects (and CG magical creatures) do a great deal of the work. I’m grateful for that, because it means it’s unlikely a novelisation will come along that we’ll be forced to read and analyse. [The playscript is already on sale, inevitably, so we’re probably spared a novel.]
Do I recommend seeing the film if you haven’t already? Again, hard to say: if you’ve read this full spoiler review, you’re probably in at least something of a position to evaluate whether all of the issues I’ve ranted about will make it too difficult for you to enjoy silly magical creature shenanigans. I will say, full stop, if you’re looking for a coherent and serious story (hah!) and/or any actual details on Rowling’s vision of magical society in America, or “another Harry Potter story” whatever that means, you won’t find those here.
Oh, and there are apparently going to be lots of sequels. Which are going to be continuing the “serious” side of the storyline, if e.g. the Grindelwald involvement are any indication. We’re not at all optimistic about those, as that was by far the worst part of this film. Nevertheless, I’m sure we’ll see them, because if we don’t suffer for your sake who will?
[As for me, Mitchell’s right that I enjoyed it despite everything. I’m far more forgiving of issues in films, and TV/games to some extent, than I am in written media. I think they should have stuck to a simpler story about chasing monsters through New York and having to cover up all the consequences, and left out the Salemers and Grindelwald, but that doesn’t really affect the film too much where I’m concerned. I thought it was fun, but again, don’t expect too much from it. And I don’t think the sequels are going to go well – well, the next one has sodding Dumbledore in it, of course it won’t go well. But that’s in the future.]