Fantastic Beasts 2’s Lazy Story and Progressive Pandering
Fantastic Beasts 2 in the precarious position of being a sad and scary barometer of the times we live in.
Spoiler alert: if you have yet to see the film, be aware that plot particulars are discussed in the post beneath.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a terrible blockbuster film. As a spin-off to the critically successful Harry Potter franchise, it’s a low rent continuation coasting by on a series of half-baked world-building concepts stitched together by the creative team that made the original films work. Yet somehow with J.K. Rowling in the driver’s seat, the franchise hasn’t found any original territory to build upon.
With the original Harry Potter films and books, there’s much to discuss regarding their structure, prose, and implicit meaning. Despite starting out as mystery stories for children, the story aged and progressed through the adolescence of its readers and viewers.
As Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has discussed, J.K.Rowling actually did manage to strike some fascinating thematic territory with her books by falling back into classical storytelling archetypes. He’s famously talked at great length about the mythological significance of Harry slaying the Basilisk in The Chamber of Secrets. These aren’t hollow stories.
The fact that the seven books and films have stuck in much the same way many great fantasy stories and children’s fiction have spoken to their universality as stories. There’s always a part of us that sees ourselves as the child forced to live under the staircase for being different hoping that there’s a better life for us somewhere else where we can be praised for who we are.
Lest we forget, the success of these books inspired an entire generation to read for the first time, thus littering the Young Adult section of every bookstore with thousands of nakedly pandering heavy handed dystopian-future/fantasy as a metaphor for high-school drama books like Divergent and Twilight.
The fruits of the success of Harry Potter haven’t proven terribly helpful on a societal level. The franchise has become the bell of obnoxious millennial moralism. Every major politician our generation doesn’t like becomes an analog to Lord Voldemort. Any resistance groups dedicated to fighting them are declared as clean and morally upstanding as “Dumbledore’s Army.”
Instead of helping young people grapple with the ideas of love and friendship in the face of a harsh universe, the stories have galvanized the idea of youthful rebellion against authority as a moral good in and of itself. Whatever the merits of Antifa or Donald Trump, young anarchists in masks “punching Nazis” aren’t morally righteous freedom fighters and Donald Trump isn’t a proxy dictator killing thousands of dissidents on a whim.
With Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindlewald, Rowling manages to further atrophy her work to a point where even its most dedicated fans fail to defend the direction these stories are taking.
Solely taken as a piece of filmmaking, it’s one of the worst contemporary blockbusters in recent memory. It’s a story that exists only to expand the scope of a universe that wasn’t explored in the original seven books. Unfortunately, this next adventure actively contradicts and breaks the rules the previous stories established.
The film’s laughable story spirals to a grand epic reveal that actively contradicts information fans of the books already know about the history of these characters. The titular Grindelwald is a character fans of the books are already familiar with as his history is expanded upon the seventh book as a sort of precursor Dark Lord to Lord Voldemort that Dumbledore had extensive ties.
In this movie, his role is primarily in the background and serves as a threat that will eventually grow to throw the wizarding world into disarray. Presumably, this will happen in the third movie because the full threat that he’s implied to be doesn’t manifest by the end of this film.
Although Nicolas Flamel shows up for two scenes for the purpose of fanservice so that’s something, I guess. By the end of the story, just about every element of the film has been left underserviced. The lead characters are still underwritten and unlikeable to the point where I don’t care about them. The best characters from the first movie get marginal screen time. Though Queenie’s character arc ends up being one of the few surprises if only because she and Jacob’s romantic subplot from the first movie had been one of its high points.
Really the film suffers from an issue of purpose. These films are trying to expand the scope of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter by exploring how magic works in other societies and thus far, all the answers it provides have been rushed and unoriginal. The movie fetishizes every moment it has an opportunity to bring back some minor element from the original series like Hogwarts, Dumbledore or the elves.
On the subject of the latter, it’s weird that the movie would use moments where the elves show up as nostalgic throwbacks when the whole point of them in the books is to reflect on ideas like racism and slavery while these movies purport to be explorations of societal oppression. It also takes absurd pride in its new ideas like the American term for Muggle being No-Maj. This is nakedly a snide British pretention. Merely the musing that Britain’s poshness and verbosity make its word-play sound more magical because it sounds like a Doctor Who timey-whimy rant. It’s a symptom of European delusions of superiority to American culture. Worse than that, it’s not a clever extension of the ideas rooted at the core of the books. It’s just a stereotypical Brooklynite working-class version of the exact same prejudices wizards in England share.
Mind you, the problem with these movies isn’t a lack of desire to try and change things up for this franchise. It’s not that these new ideas lack any gas in the tank or that you couldn’t make these ideas work. There is plenty of room in this universe to tell different kinds of stories with the same tools and world-building that went into Harry Potter.
I’d personally be fascinated to see a Harry Potter equivalent of The Silmarillion wherein we get to learn about the origins of magic, the earliest conflicts between magical and non-magical populations and the significance the mythical figure of Merlin has to this timeline since he’s namedropped constantly. That said, I don’t think J.K. Rowling has the interest or archetypal fascination in classical storytelling to create a book like that, let alone accomplish it. She’s happy to let deep lore for her franchise flourish on Pottermore and fan theory websites. She’s seemingly more interested in the contemporary political metaphors she can draw within her stories about views on homosexuality, race and societal oppression than structuring her stories in an emotionally satisfying way.
These films are sold as gallivanting adventure films set in the universe of Harry Potter. They aren’t good mystery stories. There is no grand reveal or growth that these characters achieve by chasing monsters or hunting criminals. The second film tries to bring back the mystery element but the mystery isn’t interesting. The movie just keeps teasing that there’s a mystery and that one or two guys might know the answer to it. When it’s not doing this it’s adding elements to the world that dull the previously established world or outright contradict it.
There’s so much potential in these kinds of stories to weave complex narratives about how the divisions that define wizard society, how the first interactions of technology and magic clashed (electronics don’t work in close proximity to magic) and how the defining figures of this universe first came to power. Instead, we’re treated to a scene wherein a woman brags about how “progressive” 1920s Britain is compared to America despite the fact that Great Britain was still chemically castrating homosexuals as late as 1967.
Like so much of this film’s progressive pandering, it goes hand in hand with J.K Rowling’s own sense of moralism. She famously declared Dumbledore to be a gay character despite the fact that it’s never hinted at in the books. She also celebrated recently with the casting of Hermione in The Cursed Child with a black female actress citing the fact that the books never state her race beyond describing her frizzy hair. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with either of these decisions. The problem comes down to the fact that they were made retroactively by J.K. Rowling as a method of virtue signaling to progressive millennials instead of a meaningful artistic decision in the process of writing the books.
It’s merely self-aggrandizing. She didn’t even write Dumbledore’s sexuality into Fantastic Beasts 2 which in theory would be the one place it would be smart to explore the concept if she wanted to add this to her universe retroactively. In place of a more comprehensive exploration of her characters and world Rowling is happy to use the years after her success as a means of promoting her own activism over continuing to develop her skills and her work.
Compare that to her fantasy contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien who continued to develop his ideas for Middle Earth well after the publishing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the point where his son has been able to publish five posthumous Middle Earth books with his extraneous material. As pedantic and unnecessary some of those books are to the main arc of the series they still expand upon his initial themes from the first four books and build a tremendously large mythos for fans to lose themselves in.
Maybe it speaks well of the Harry Potter fans I’ve talked to that they’ve grown tired with this continuation of stories from both movies to the underwhelming and much-maligned Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. Most everyone I’ve personally heard from on the subject of Fantastic Beasts 2 found it tedious and frustrating. Yet I’m not hearing any sort of meaningful pushback against this film’s moralism. Maybe it’s just a sign of how comfortably progressive social norms have come to become the norm in modern life or how tedious a film implicitly about not allowing gay marriage feels three years after the supreme court ruled in its favor.
In either case, there’s no meaningful disagreement between this film and its audience. This movie doesn’t push you to be better. At the core of this story is the question of whether or not its right to blow up the core foundations of society to end oppression. It’s like X-Men with no Charles Xavier to push back. In this story, Dumbledore is powerless to stop Grindelwald for multiple reasons and it’s pretty clear that the movie justifies his attempts at Wizard revolution. At the moment there’s a huge contingent of millennials willing to either vote any semblance of American Republican rule of law out of the government in favor of autocratic leftism or to go as far as to violently overthrow it. That leaves Fantastic Beasts 2 in the precarious position of being a sad and scary barometer of the times we live in. The most I can say for it is that it’s dreadfully of-the-moment.
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.
The “creative team” that made the movies became progressively worse in later iterations. After Goblet of Fire, the movies were borderline unwatchable.
Prisoner of Azkaban was above the low bar for the series, but is probably my least favorite because of how they rushed and ruined the best book tale in the series.
Side note: This article is a good read.
Excellent review, Tyler. I hope to read more of your writing.
I thought the last two Harry Potter episodes really sucked, and “Beasts” seems to be a continuation of that downhill slide.
Ahem. I *liked* Fantastic Beasts. It set Newt up as a soft heart who cares about all the things that wizards fear, including the odd wizard-child-abominations. (which completely clash with HP canon, but I digress)
FB2… Was still good, but lost a lot in my book by losing focus on the fascinating creatures and putting a lot more screen time on Dep’s character (probably because they payed a *lot* of money for his draw power, and that’s going to influence the end result bigtime, but I digress again)
And yes, I’ll pay to see FB3 when it comes out.
Oh, and the HP movies had a major tone shift from 1-8, because so do people from age 11 to 17, after all. #7 was… drawn out, most likely because of how much money the whole franchise was making and putting out a last movie that would run 4 hours could have really crimped their finish. The first five get watched a lot more at my house because they’re escapist to a place where we (at heart) want to be, while the last three go where we don’t want to go, after all.
I enjoyed it, it’s a great visual movie. The plot meh, but everything becomes stale after a while, and I think starving creative people do the best work, and after they have had fortunes made, they trend toward mediocrity. It isn’t the type of flick that I had to go see, I went because my wife and daughter wanted to go, so I did too. I would have rather seen Bohemian Rhapsody, as that music was in part background to my younger years.
Sometimes things get over worked, and the passion to create more to feed the bank accounts which are overflowing just cuts the edge off the original premise. The feeling I get is JK just doesn’t quite care about these characters as much, though films and books are entirely different through which to develop characters. A lot also depends on who plays the roles, and some actors are just not really grab you by the shoulders types. Nice enough, but pretty bland.
This go reminds me of the Star Wars tragedy, where episodes 1-3 raised the bar with CG and lowered it everywhere else. I like the time period this is set, and so much more could be done with it, but it’s an OK way to spend a couple hours. I’d have rather spent the money to see on Pay per view, but it would have been less in visual impact too.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding the reference but JRR Tolkein and JK Rowling aren’t even close to being contempararies. Rowling (b 1965) was about 8 when Tolkein died in 1973. Tolkein’s books were also published long before Harry Potter. I was reading them in the early 1980s and they’d been out a decade or more by then. I also think you’ve got the Tolkein timeline backwards. He did a lot of musing on Middle Earth before polishing The Lord of The Rings (originally written as serial letters to his son in the RAF during WWII) for publication. As an aside, The Hobbit was written later as a shorter book to get people interested in the LOTR story even though it’s presented as a prequel.
Actually, the Hobbit was first published in 1937, with Tolkien starting work on what would become the Lord of the Rings when his publisher asked him for a sequel. The Hobbit isn’t a prequel, it was both written and published first.
“Solely taken as a piece of film making, it’s one of the worst contemporary blockbusters in recent memory.”
Yikes. Yes. And here I thought it was just me and my casual interest in the first one or two Harry Potter movies as pleasant passing popcorn time at Hogwarts with them crazy kids.
Fantastic Beasts 2 is lavishly produced, CGI fantastic, and deftly acted. Kudos to Judd Law & Johnny Depp (the latter possessing that Jack Sparrow spark of old), but the direction and plot rabbit trails left me with whiplash, and wondering what the hell does any of this even mean and why should I care?
I never read the books or watched the subsequent sequels past HP 2 or 3. My wife is the reader and fan of the HP franchise. She invited me to see Fantastic Beasts 2, and I said why not? I guess my first clue that I would be totally befuddled and lost about the plot, characters and story line was the ‘2’ in the title.
Bravo, Tyler Hummel for an excellent post. You’ve focused my scatter thoughts on this movie.