First published in the British Fantasy Journal. 17 (26-9).
‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’, directed by David Yates in 2016, is a British and American fantasy movie, and a further instalment in the ‘Harry Potter’ film franchise.
Eddie Redmayne plays Newt Scamander, a British wizard who arrives in New York City with a menagerie of magical creatures inside his dimensionally transcendental suitcase. Whilst there, he finds himself embroiled in the machinations of the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald who is trying to foster discord between the magical and non-magical inhabitants of the city using a possessed child. Scamander’s (and Manhattan’s) troubles increase as a number of his creatures escape to wreak havoc on New York.
It’s a colourful film, slightly mind-bending in the density of the CGI details and, at times, headache inducing, but once you tune in to the style of Yates’s direction you find yourself absorbed by this world. Every frame seems to be packed with rich details tying the story in to a wider universe, seeding information for future films and dropping in-joke references to the earlier movies, with Yates skilfully keeping everything in the frame in a way that focuses the attention on the main action, but also serves to reward repeated viewing.
J K Rowling, the author of the original Harry Potter books and of this new film, is clearly relishing the opportunity to inject her story with a contemporary political message and uses the American setting to critique some of right-wing policies of that country. As such, the film is laced with anti-death penalty, anti-racist and anti-gun messages. The original films (and books) were shaped and, for the most part, slightly hampered by the constrictions of the ‘school story’ genre with characters travelling to and from Hogwarts and most of the films rigorously structured around the cycle of the school year. The relocation of the story to America in the late 1920s, and the principal focus on adults, allows Rowling to move beyond this and explore the universe she has created without being tied to one location or time. This expansion of the original series has a tremendous potential, with five further movies planned and the next due to take place in Paris and London, I would hope the story will become global and I’m particularly interested to see if the rise of Nazism and the Second World War will be included in the latter films.
For all of Rowling’s impeccable world creation, there are moments in the film that seem curiously at odds with the central messages behind the Harry Potter stories. A major part of the success of ‘Fantastic Beast’ comes from the ways Rowling plays with the morality of the different groups of characters. The non-magical and magical communities are shown to be simultaneously symbiotic and in opposition, a paradoxical balance that is a central tenet of the original series. Rowling has always drawn humour from the ways in which the two worlds co-exist, both from their differences and from the prosaic similarities between them. In the later books, Rowling expanded this to create a political satire critiquing every major movement from Thatcherism to New Labour, in particular the modern notion of ‘spin’. In ‘Fantastic Beasts’, she further pushes the focus of her political interests, and this is reflected in the ways that each faction is drawn. She resists presenting the same Manichaean construct of the Death Eaters versus the Order of the Phoenix. Instead, the two factions in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ are complex and nuanced, each with their extremists and extreme views; each with their dogmatic prejudices and venal motivations. This makes the movie a very satisfying extension of Harry Potter: in much the same way Rowling extends the physical universe she has created, she increases the moral and social complexity of it. At the centre of ‘Fantastic Beasts’, however, is a very familiar, character driven story but with an unsettling twist.
The central villain of piece, an Auror called Percival Graves, played by Colin Farrell, has groomed a teenage boy called Credence Barebone to act as his informant. The twist (with apologies for the spoiler) is that Credence has also been possessed by an Obscurus, a parasitic magical entity. Ultimately, despite the fact that the parasite has apparently been brought under control, Credence is executed to avoid the exposure of the Magical Congress of the United States of America. This is, in many ways, a strong, even brave, statement and an excellent way to start an ongoing story in which the magical and non-magical worlds come into conflict, however, the character of Credence is also a flipside of Harry Potter: like Potter he is orphaned and adopted by an austere, cruel non-magical character; like Potter he is a loner at odds with both the magical and non-magical worlds; like Potter, he finds a mentor in the form of a powerful wizard who offers to take him under his wing; like Potter, Credence is ‘marked’ by dark magic. It strikes me that the original series championed Potter’s otherness, his status as a loner and outsider. The strength of the character of Potter, and the driving narrative of the story that arced across all seven novels, was his independence from the magical establishment. In this movie, Rowling dismantles her carefully constructed celebration of the disenfranchised and marginalised by killing Credence without a great deal of moral commentary or repercussion. It is true that throughout the film she has developed a subtext that criticised the death penalty, but the execution that occurs at the end of the film is presented as a fait accompli rather than as part of this broader moral commentary. The death of Credence and the reactions of the other characters to it seem jarringly at odds with the spirit of the original series.
Unfortunately, for me, this jarring departure from the ethos of the Harry Potter stories was what I took away from the movie. It may be that the effect of the death of Credence on the other characters will return and be addressed in later films, I hope so. Despite this, however, ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is still an exceptionally rich and well-constructed opening to a new saga with the potential not only to expand the universe of Harry Potter, but to supersede the original stories with a more complex set of political and historical allegories.