Fantastic Beasts Could Have Been Fantastic
When I was a child, my Harry Potter books had a very special addition: two thin textbooks, just like the ones Harry as and his friends would have used, complete with Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s comical margin notes! The first was Quidditch Through The Ages, but the second — infinitely more interesting — was Fantastic Breasts and Where To Find Them, by Newt Scamander. I loved to take it out and pretend that I was participating in a genuine artefact of wizardkind, memorizing the names and habits of the creatures mentioned, adding my own margin notes.
It was kind-of a brilliant choice for a film franchise. The name alone conjures up such promise! But the films — and ok I only saw the first — disappoint. It’s definitely charming at points but it never feels — to me at least — truly magical.
As I start watching the first film, the first thing I’m struck with us the lack of a sense of enchantment — the sense that the original Harry Potter books and films basically codified for my generation. Obviously, I might be a little biased here — I was introduced to the originals at a sensitive age, when I could almost really believe that there was a hidden magical world hidden just out of sight and even practiced spellcasting just in case. If I read the books now, I’d probably enjoy them, but I might not feel the magic as strongly. Sad but true, most adults are Muggles.
But I strongly suspect that if I watched the first Fantastic Beasts movie as a child again, I’d just be confused. It’s chaotic and the only big landmarks to take hold of are things I remember from a previous series, which means it depends on that mental investment. Newt Scamander I recognize —and he drops one of those cringy lines that don’t mean anything to anyone but him and the audience about 'being more of a chaser' — and I wonder if Tina Goldstein is a distant relative of Anthony Goldstein, that Ravenclaw who was mentioned once in the books? Other than that, what an I supposed to consider important? Who am I supposed to relate to? What’s anybody feeling in these opening sequences? I’m completely distanced from what’s going on as a viewer; I’m not engaged, I’m just trying to figure out the significance of what’s going on onscreen.
Then — and this may be a personal pet peeve — tonally I’m reminded of all the P.G. Wodehouse stories where the author dims his genius by making his characters travel to New York. I have nothing against stories set in New York, and I imagine it could be done to great effect, but — and this is important — it is not. Instead it feels screechingly awkward and forced and the American characters feel coarse and charmlessly caricaturish. Enough Englishmen in New York, ok? The English version of New York is a drawling, grating, brassy nightmare.
And Harry Potter — no matter how many Americans are involved in the production team — is essentially English. Don’t get me wrong, if it was done right I’d love to see what’s going on magical around the world, at Beauxbatons, Durmstang, Ilvermorny, and even Ireland, Wales, and Scotland (the numbers aren’t adding up name-and-accent wise and in my opinion a lot of kids are being homeschooled and taught pre-Roman magic…) But the charm of the world as we know it is pretty English, and when you throw away the Englishness you run the risk of throwing away the charm (not in a UKIP way).
I suspect that British writers like using America like the space or the wild west — the place where the usual rules no longer apply and all normal bets are off. Likewise American audiences are drawn to Britain for its sense of tradition and order. In my opinion the scales tip too far towards the chaotic in Fantastic Beasts, and it being set in New York is part of that.
One of the charming things about British storytelling is that it exults in the ordinary. It tends to the modest (even if this can include an Aunt-Petunia-like squeamishness around talent). You see lots of people in British television who aren’t particularly conventionally attractive, and they and everything around them (as far as the viewer is concerned) act as if the screen is exactly where they belong. Fantastic Beasts has an element of this: more of the main characters are less Hollywood-attractive than I’d expect from a film of that scale. But the film, unfortunately, seems aware of this, so the grounded effect doesn’t really come through. And the most charming thing about the wizarding world is also lost: the feeling of ordinary life, of the magical ticking away steadily in its own universe that is very like our own, just one invisible street away. (If we’re in New York, why aren’t I seeing a big complex of Knockturn-Alley-esque neighborhoods?? Or a magical open-air marketplace? Also, if this is the wizarding world, why isn’t anyone wearing cloaks?)
And the moment we enter Newt’s magical briefcase (although it’s a lovely scene), I don’t know the limits of what’s possible and what’s not in this world, really. And not having clear boundaries to magic always makes magic less enchanting.
And then there’s just the plot. Why did it have to be about the face-off between Dumbledore and Grindelwald? Who was desperate to see that story spelled out? We all know it’s Wizard WWII, is it really that interesting to retrace? Why does the plot have to be so heavy? It’s a bit like The Hobbit — why did it have to be so grandiose? Why couldn’t they tell a smaller story?
The truly genius thing about Harry Potter is its deep sense of mythology. On the one hand the content is itself mythological: it’s all Campbellian, a textbook Hero’s Journey (and yes…Newt is a chaser, not a seeker, this is a different kind of story and that’s fine). On the other, it feels like it echoes out and into previous, substantial myths. Ginny has a pale shadow of Guinevere about her, you know? I’m not getting that from Fantastic Beasts, and I’m not getting something else instead.
Worst of all, there’s nothing to inspire me. Opening Newt’s original 'textbook' as a child made me want to find out more about the living world— both magical and non-magical. How is this part of the enchantment missing?
Here’s how I would have done it. First of all, it would not be films, at least not a blockbuster series — it would be a TV series. Newt Scamander is still our main character, of course, but we find him at the beginning of each episode in a slightly faded country mansion at the edge of a wizarding village. You already know what it looks like: stately, patched-up rather than renovated, sometimes innovatively, and filled with fifteen to twenty magical beasts of various descriptions in a lovely balance of controlled chaos. There are papers absolutely everywhere and when Newt isn’t off on adventures, he is sketching, observing, reading, studying…the title cards are definitely inspired by his Robert Hooke-style biological drawings. But Newt does go off on adventures every episode to track down a new fantastic beast. Sometimes this ties into the wizarding war brewing in the background; sometimes we run into Dumbledore and other big players. Sometimes we just see a headline in the newspaper or hear a few lines of conversation in the local pub. Newt is quietly in love with a girl in the village — perhaps an old school friend or perhaps a local Squib who is interested in his work— but a perfectly ordinary lovely person; their relationship develops slowly because they have total certainty they’ll always be there for each other. There are plenty of ordinary people who are revealed to be extraordinary in small, lustrous ways, and Newt is never able to forget that human beings are fantastic beasts and they are to be found everywhere, but particularly at home.