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A note on Fantastic Beasts

Today sees the wide release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. I won’t be reviewing it.

Quite a few moviegoers will be skipping this movie in protest, as the filmmakers gave Johnny Depp an expanded role and even put his character right there in the title. And yes, it is more than a little infuriating how Hollywood continues to give Depp an A-list career after he (allegedly, probably, totally) beat his wife. But more than that, I’m upset by how Depp is still an A-list star long after he’s so clearly lost his mind.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Depp met his future ex-wife Amber Heard on the set of The Rum Diaries, because his cinematic output (coincidentally?) took a sharp downturn after that film came out in 2011. There was his outrageously wrong-headed turn in The Lone Ranger (2012). There was Transcendence, a godawful movie in which he played an AI and thus had less screen time than most of the actors billed below him. Then came whatever the hell Mortdecai was. Then came Black Mass, Into the Woods, Murder on the Orient Express (2017)… even when he was acting for Tim Burton or playing Captain Jack Sparrow, it looked like Depp was either going through the motions or playing to the cheap seats. This was also right about the time when Universal — in their doomed Dark Universe enterprise — cast Depp as the Invisible Man, which would have guaranteed Depp a hefty paycheck and his name above the title without spending much of any time on set.

I, for one, am sick and tired of letting Depp coast on his old reputation when he’s done nothing in the past decade to deserve it. If he’s not going to give a shit, why should I?

But then we also have J.K. Rowling and all the bad press she’s attracted lately. I’ll agree that it’s problematic how Rowling is so outspoken about social equality, but gets every kind of defensive when her own socially ignorant errors get called out. But even this is only a smaller part of a greater problem.

Numerous commentators have dissected the Wizarding World over the years and remarked at all the ways that it makes no sense. We all know that Quidditch is a stupid sport, built so the Seeker (read: Harry) is all that really matters. We all know how preposterous it is that freaking time travel exists, and the government hands it to some thirteen-year-old girl so she can study and take classes well past any mental or physical limit. We’ve known about these problems for years, and yet Rowling herself has done nothing to address any of them as she continues to expand her universe. Instead, we learn that Nagini was an Asian woman this whole time, and there are wizarding schools overseas that were apparently put together with no regard to their respective native cultures.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Wizarding World expanded too far and too fast for Rowling to handle. She was not equal to the task of creating a massive, sprawling, immaculately detailed world to the demands of the franchise and its fans. And in retrospect, it’s clear to see why. After all, when Rowling started out, she was an unpublished amateur author who only ever wanted to write a fantasy series for young adults. And that’s a significant part of why it worked so well.

I was lucky enough to be part of the generation that grew up beside Harry Potter. I lived through those formative teenage rites of passage when he did, his lessons about life and liberty came right when I needed them most, and I discovered the Wizarding World right alongside him. Everything great about the Wizarding World was built around Harry and his coming-of-age journey, and that’s a huge part of what made it so immersive. Even when Rowling published her novellas about Quidditch and “Fantastic Beasts”, the crucial gimmick is that we were holding the very textbooks that Harry and his friends were studying.

Those first seven books were about this heartfelt, archetypal, fantastic coming-of-age saga. Without that beating heart, what are we left with?

Well, we have Newt Scamander, whom we know will eventually be the venerable zoologist who literally wrote the book on the magical beasts of Harry’s world. And yes, we have Grindelwald, the dark wizard that Dumbledore so famously defeated. That’s not even getting started on Harry’s whiny youngest son and a plot that bent itself into knots getting Voldemort back into the story after death. None of this stuff enriches the original story in any way, and none of these stories are anywhere near as compelling. Say what you will about the Star Wars prequels, but at least they were built directly to set up the original trilogy, providing crucial backstory about the main characters and the central conflict.

As with the best cases of world-building, the original Harry Potter books developed its setting to serve the story. As with the worst cases of world-building, everything after “Deathly Hallows” developed the setting as an end in itself. The Wizarding World was built from the ground up to revolve around Harry, so when the filmmakers kept going on without him in the equation, and with nothing equally compelling to build the franchise around, everything seemed so much more hollow.

Of course I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong about all of this. Maybe you really like Newt and his adventures or you love what Rowling has added to the Wizarding World. More power to you. Maybe you think that Depp has been unfairly maligned or the backlash against Rowling is overblown. Whatever. Maybe the prequels enrich the original series in some way I’m not seeing — in that case, please leave a comment, I’m genuinely curious.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with the original books, which will most likely continue to enthrall readers and guide young adults through adolescence, leaving Newt Scamander, Grindelwald, and all their contemporaries to their once and future place as backstory players.

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