'Fantastic Beasts' Review: Newt, Representation, and Obscurials

Whether you’re a diehard Potterhead (like me) or have just seen some of the Harry Potter films, you’ve probably heard of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the latest cinematic installment of the Harry Potter franchise.

In the days following the announcement of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in September 2013, the Harry Potter fandom on Tumblr exploded. It was probably naive to think the eighth Harry Potter film marked the end of arguably the most successful franchise in the world, but the joy was immediate. Fan participation expanded with the security in knowing time invested in the fandom would be rewarded with new content, which had previously been deemed as nostalgia for an ended series. Fans compared the Harry Potter fandom to a phoenix rising from the ashes, saying they were “going back home,” and calling themselves the “fandom-that-lived.”

In the years since, there’s been much to grapple with amongst fans. The fandom is divided on the merit of and the need for new facts and stories released by JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series and screenwriter of Fantastic Beasts. She has amended the canon through various Twitter announcements, Pottermore articles, and new short books. Although I initially lamented not getting a Marauders or next generation-era reboot, I later realized I had developed such a staunchly-held interpretation of both universes that it was better to preserve the imagined. This was reaffirmed with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new Harry Potter play that picks up where the series left off. Growing the canon of Harry Potter isn’t inherently negative; however, doing so outside of the novel format has caused many fans to become disillusioned.

Poor representation of minorities and LGBTQ people is another issue within the Harry Potter universe. There are few characters of color and only cisgender heterosexual characters, with the exception of Dumbledore (whose sexual orientation JK Rowling announced in a tweet in 2007 but is not explicit in the series). Between 1997 and 2007, the ten-year span in which Harry Potter was published, there was a very different social climate around representation of marginalized communities. Still, the progressive years since have yielded just two shifts: Rowling’s announcement that Dumbledore is gay (but lived an “asexual” lifestyle, grossly misusing the label) and that black Hermione is valid, though not intended in the original series. In the meantime, Rowling occasionally addresses the inclusivity of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World in regards to race, religion, and sexual orientation only by vague affirmations of equality and newly invented characters.

With all of this in mind, the series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has a lot of weight on its shoulders. Can it prove that more Harry Potter content is needed? Can the new content remedy the white-centric, male-centric, straight cast of characters in the original series? Can the first film justify creating the four more that are planned? And how does the wizarding community interact with the inequality of the Muggle community in 1920s New York City?

In short: yes, not yet, almost, and not much.

As the unexpectedly moving, emotionally balanced, magical Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them unfolded, I asked myself: do I want four more of these? The apprehension I’d had about the film was stripped away as soon as I saw the film’s logo sweep through the clouds. Newt’s smile and the Niffler’s adorable antics further warmed my guarded heart from the beginning, but it was the expertly balanced dark and light of the film that truly won me over. This is a different time, in the same universe, with similar themes. Cruelty, friendship, good, and evil return as threads throughout the film, easing the transition between Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts. Besides the quality of the first film, I understand how more are needed. Future films could be an opportunity to explore wizarding Britain and other countries in the 1920s as the dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) gains power. Characters introduced in the film could be more fleshed out, and new characters introduced.

 

MILD SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPHS. I’ll discuss parts of the film that give away plot points but that will only make full sense if you’ve seen the film. Proceed with caution.

 

Before the film started, I realized part of what would really make or break it for me was whether the characters were likable and complex, or simply two-dimensional. Predictably, Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander is the lifeblood of the film. While he plays slightly different versions of the same character in the films I’ve seen him in, his quirkiness is most at home in the Harry Potter universe. He is the strange, fantastic one, the character who serves as the Luna Lovegood of Harry Potter, proving to everyone with an active, odd imagination that the world needs that creativity and deviation from the norm. Part of the film’s strength is taking character traits that were not represented in main characters in the original series and subverting them or giving them more limelight.

Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is rebellious, but not in a showy or “strong female lead” way, and is able to express (or repress) a broad range of emotions. If you follow Pottermore, you’ll already know she eventually marries Newt, but she is not reduced to a love interest in the first film. While overweight and fat characters in the original series are portrayed as negative (the Dursleys, Slughorn, Crabbe), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger) shifts the norm. He is comedic relief, though not stereotypically insecure or bumbling, instead kind and honest. What makes him more likeable is that he is a stand-in for the audience, and his reactions to magic reflect how the audience would feel in his situation, much like Harry’s reaction to magic in the first film. Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) is a revision of Lavender, Cho, Bellatrix, Fleur, and Umbridge, whose feminized emotions and appearance, particularly in the films, had been juxtaposed with the rationality of the Golden Trio. Queenie is beautiful and seductive, but not malicious or unintelligent. More surprisingly, she is a Legilimens, someone with the ability to read minds that until now seemed to be a skill limited to dark wizards.

The inside of Newt’s suitcase blew me away. Not just because of its size, but how the limits of magic were preserved, more like a few acres inside to hold his creatures rather than a boundless landscape. CGI is heavily present, but it didn’t take me out of the film, instead adding a layer of magic in reality: humans without magical powers were able to create such a vibrant and violent world. I enjoyed seeing creatures familiar from the Fantastic Beasts book and the Harry Potter video games, including the Bowtruckle, Niffler, Doxy, Fwooper, and Billywig. In all, they were a pleasing mix of cute, eerie, and majestic.

 

EXTREME SPOILERS IN THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH. Don’t read anything in this section if you don’t want anything major spoiled, or unless you’ve already seen the film. Skip to after the GIF of Hogwarts students cheering to avoid accidentally reading something.

 

Of all the creatures, the Obscurial requires the most study. The idea of the Obscurial to me is a heart-breaking yet spot-on way to manifest the consequences of child abuse and neglect, as well as forcing people to fit into society. If theories that Ariana Dumbledore was an Obscurus are correct, this fits even more with the metaphor of abuse and its destructive effects. The portrayal of the adopted children in the film and the Obscurial echoes JK Rowling’s advocacy against institutionalizing children whose families cannot support them or who are orphans through her organization Lumos. I wonder how Rowling will justify the Obscurial not being present by the 1990s; perhaps in a future film Newt’s method for curing a Obscurus child will spread. Other allegories for discrimination and oppression are found throughout the film: marriage restrictions between wizarding folk and No-Majs (the American term for non-magical person), fringe anti-magic rhetoric becoming mainstream, and eliminating magical creatures rather than trying to coexist.

Young Gellert Grindelwald in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I.

 

I found it hard to believe that only two No-Majs perished at the hands of Credence, which is why it’s easier to sympathize with the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) for killing him. Another thought that I hope is answered: why was the Obscurial that Newt saw a Sudanese girl? Since Sudan was a British colony at the time, this again raises questions about the relationship between Muggle colonialism and the wizarding community. Since the wizarding community in the United States is much more restrictive on magical-Muggle relations and separates the communities, it makes sense that their interactions with Muggle issues would be limited. If the Great Depression happens during the course of the films, it could drastically change the policies of non-involvement in the US.

Based on the film, it seems like representation will improve only slightly. The four main characters are white, though Tina and Queenie are Jewish, the first featured Jewish characters of the franchise. The President of the MACUSA is Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo), a black woman from Savannah, Georgia, who is not developed much as a character, but is both powerful and compelling in every scene she’s in. With the film’s only non-white or non-straight potential relationships apparently ending poorly, I hope to see more positive representation as more characters are introduced. Newt and Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) had a falling out in the past, and it is unclear if this is at all because the Lestranges supported Grindelwald. She could be an Andromeda Tonks/Regulus Black figure by ultimately betraying her family or could pave the way for Rodolphus Lestrange (Bellatrix Lestrange’s husband). Either way, I’m excited to be introduced to her in future films.

In regards to other broken relationships, we get an idea of the nature of Grindelwald’s relationship with Dumbledore at various points in the film. Was Grindelwald’s treatment of Credence supposed to have romantic undertones, calling back to his friendship with Dumbledore? As a refresher, Grindelwald was aware of Dumbledore’s romantic feelings for him, and used those feelings to manipulate Dumbledore without actually feeling the same way. What affirmed for me that Graves’ haircut was not simply a Grindelwald-follower fashion staple was how physically close and emotionally manipulative he was with Credence. Since Grindelwald will eventually duke it out with Dumbledore and we could see flashbacks to their youth (I hope), this sets a disturbing precedent.

All said, I am in withdrawal after seeing Fantastic Beasts. Fan art and analysis will have to be enough for the two-year wait until the next film. I’m just happy to know that more films are on the way, and that even in my early adulthood I can experience the familiar excitement leading up to premieres. If you’re on the fence about seeing it, go. And welcome home.

 

Thumbnail: x

If you would like to write for Her Campus Mount Holyoke, or if you have any questions or comments for us, please email [email protected].