Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

CW: abuse, violence, race, cultural appropriation

Imagine being shown that this world is full of greater wonders than we've yet imagined, then told you will have to forget it within hours, days, weeks. How would you take advantage of the fleeting moments you have in this parallel universe? That sounds like such a potent, beautiful movie, and I wish this film had lived up to the promise that set up had. Jacob is sidelined as comic relief and occasional audience surrogate, but while trying to keep that woven into this story, it never let him fully develop. We get to know Jacob in snippets, but what details we're given don't provide enough emotional content to give his journey the impact it deserves. His time in the war is a brief hint at some past that we get no further details on and no deeper context to (Newt touches on it in a way that suggests room for a connection, but the story draws them away from it quickly). His love of his grandmother and baking is presented at face value, his hatred of his factory job is described but never shown, and his love for Queenie is relegated to silence. He is barely a character beyond an able performance and scattered details. Thus, as he steps into Newt's case of wonders, as he faces off against the erumpent, as he punches a goblin in the head, as he willingly steps into an amnesiac future, what we feel is diminished. If you think now you felt so profoundly for him, I counter with "Imagine what you'd have felt if he were written well."

This inability to meet the demands of Rowling's world of wonder is at the heart of what has been wrong with every single Harry Potter movie. I have complained before that the magical battles became about incessant whizzing lightning bolts--another reviewer aptly described them as magic-as-bullets--instead of the magical oneupsmanship that the books gave us. Cunning is removed from these fights, leaving us only speed and accuracy and power. It removes the function of magic as an equalizer and turns it into a slightly more versatile gun. It's boring. Who cares how fast they can jump around or how long they can stand there staring at each other over a linked connection of lightning? (Note: when that reappears in this film, it irked the book-nerd in me as it is presented in the books as unusual, possibly unique magic based on the twin cores of Harry's and Voldemort's wands. Does Tina have a wand whose core is twin to the elder wand? 'Cause that'd be fucking interesting.) (Yes, I think it's the elder wand; in the vision of its theft, Grindelwald is described as being young, which he wasn't here. Johnny "Domestic Abuser" Depp is 200 years old.) (Yes, I am familiar with the books.)

The only time this film gets the wonder right is with the titular beasts. Newt's case is one of the few times the series has ever indulged in wonder, trying to draw us further into it with Jacob's surrogacy. It works to some degree, in part because it pulls out a few nice tricks (that distortion of space as they go from one section to another) and in part because it uses landscape and set design to not just fill the screen with color and imagery, but to draw the attention around as well. For a while, it looks like this will be used to great effect, as Newt is a sort of resourceful wizard who relies a fair bit on the creatures to act and succeed, to combat his opponents and solve problems. For a time, magic becomes inventive once more, but eventually, we are reduced to swirling clouds of whatever and photon blasts once more. We've seen it before. It's no longer impressive. It was great in Return of the Jedi and Star Trek and a hundred other films besides, but we deserve better now.

Speaking of Depp: Abuse has always been a part of these stories. I do not have the knowledge to speak authoritatively about depictions of abuse, but it's always been part of these stories, from the Dursley's cruelty to Voldemort's treatment of his followers to the implications of Snape's past to Marvolo Gaunt's treatment of his children... to this story, where the mistress of the orphanage directly, physically abuses her charges. Tacit to this story is a critique of the separation of muggle and wizard; Tina's knowledge of it and inability to act on it is not just shown as an injustice but one that has consequences on the wizarding world. Inevitably, this is erased by magic, which is wielded so often to weaken narratives as much as anything else. (The implication that it needs those consequences to be recognized as unjust is an interesting condemnation as well, but one that does not get explored.) In this context, employing Johnny Depp, who is known to have abused his wife, is galling. There's nothing more complicated about it. That his role is poised to be a major one in the coming films is equally appalling. It's one thing for the film--and the series--to downplay the abuse somewhat (disappointing, missing an opportunity for real education, and possibly misinforming as it is--again, I am no authority, so please defer to wiser writers), and another, more dire to empower an abuser, sending an even worse message.

The other (typical) problem with this that stood out to me is its treatment of race. Once more, black characters are relegated to side roles. While the President is a black woman, her role is a side role. Better, I suppose, than being a clown or servant, but still pushed to the side and shown to be "wrong" by white heroes. (Let me pause and tell my fellow white people that I don't care what you think of my opinion on this aspect of the film.) For a film about the separation of two kinds of people and the erasure of memory, it's perhaps ironic that it builds itself on the foul tradition of relegating black actors to the shadows of white leads. Furthermore, it draws from Native American mythologies with the thunderbird, but never acknowledges that. That particular creature has long been one that has drawn me, and I yearn to see one day a story told with genuine respect for its origins. Here, we get more erasure and some flashy computer animation, nothing more. As always, this series fails people of color and their cultures.

As I walked away from the theatre, I was thinking how much I had actually enjoyed parts of this film, but as I write about it, all of that evaporates. The execution scene, for instance, had power to it, horror to it, for brief flickering moments, but the film doesn't let it breathe. It doesn't linger, ever, on any moment of emotional weight. This goes back to my first complaint, and all my other complaints, that this and the other films in this series never take in what they are depicting. This isn't even a style vs. substance complaint, because even the moments of spectacle are rushed and weakened by this approach. The reason the scene in the case works better than most is that it does stop slightly longer than most--but it still packs in about ten different scenes in an attempt to flood you with spectacle instead of relying on the spectacle to do its job. It's unthinking, unmeasured storytelling.

Sally Jane liked these reviews