Saw Fantastic Beasts. Short review: I enjoyed it. Didn’t love it.
Disclaimer: I’m not a big Harry Potter fan. I don’t dislike the world or the stories, but I’ve never been enamored of the setting or the universe. I’ve never found it particularly interesting or compelling. It gets the job done, and I find nothing objectionable about it. Just doesn’t excite me.
Fantastic Beasts is Potter-related, taking place in the same universe and involving The Wizarding World, but it stands pretty solidly on its own, which is good and something I’ll give it credit for. The story is functional, the characters work, and the setting of ’20’s New York and magic is at least unique enough to spark some creativity. I have no real criticism of the film, but I do have a few storytelling elements that I just don’t find interesting that keep popping up throughout. These are by no means bad elements or themes, and people do seem to be fond of them. So this is less of a criticism than simply a jumping off point to talk about elements in sci fi / fantasy I tend to find uninspired.
THE HIDING WORLD:
Hidden or secret world elements are quite common in fantasy, especially modern fantasy. There’s our ordinary world and a hidden world of magic, faeries, talking dogs, what-have-you that coexist, with the fantasy world being undetected by the muggles. The extreme version of this is where the world isn’t just hidden, but is actively hiding. There’s a masquerade or conspiracy that devotes itself to avoiding discovery.
It’s a trope I have avoided in all my work. Gil’s All Fright Diner has the supernatural front-and-center, with all the citizens either intentionally ignoring or nonchalantly accepting the magic in their midst. In Monster and Chasing the Moon, magic is hidden by virtue of a fugue that makes it undetectable to most people by default. And in Divine Misfortune and Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest, the fantasy elements are a part of everyday life and have been since forever.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity exists in a gray area. People know fantastic things exist to varying degrees, but most ordinary people aren’t very interested in those things. There’s not so much a masquerade as a World of Adventure and a World of Ordinariness existing side-by-side, mingling without clear distinction. This intentional as the gray area is where Connie lives.
The Hiding World trope isn’t my bag because it inevitably becomes the focus of the story itself. At some point, the threat of exposure will become the focus of the story as characters struggle to maintain it. I don’t like Hiding World stories very often because they take focus away from the character and tend to place it on the setting itself.
WIZARDS VS. MUGGLES:
Whether it’s mutant vs. human or wizard vs. muggle, this is another trope I’ve grown tired of. Again, it might be because it so often detracts from the characters, turning the attention toward a meta-conflict. I understand where this idea comes from. It’s not hard to imagine that if there were people with extraordinary powers that ordinary people might fear them. Prejudice and bigotry happens even when people aren’t very different at all, much less when they can teleport or have laser eyes. But this is fiction, and I don’t always need fiction to be realistic.
My own stories tend to avoid this trope entirely. In Gil’s, nobody is terrified of Duke the werewolf or Earl the vampire. In In the Company of Ogres, racial tension between the various fantasy races is mild. In Chasing the Moon, cosmic forces that can destroy our entire reality are seen as sympathetic and (mostly) not to be feared.
The reason I tend not to enjoy the Us vs. Them stories is that they follow a similar route. I find myself supremely disinterested in the X-Men in all their forms because they are trapped in this repeating cycle of “Is coexistence possible?” that never really goes anywhere. It’s a fair argument that this is a fair question, but it’s still a story that stalls out without any real satisfying conclusion.
This is a tricky one. The characters in Fantastic Beasts are active. They do things. They advance the story. They grow. They have conflict. But the ultimate conflict of the movie is resolved without them having any real effect on the events.
This argument gets trotted out often when talking about Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. The argument is that Indiana Jones is irrelevant to the final conclusion of these stories. There’s a few nuanced counterpoints that I think have merit, but for the most part, it’s valid to suggest that our protagonist’s involvement isn’t very important.
Without getting into spoilers, the final conflict of the story has almost nothing to do with our protagonists. You could neatly divide the Beasts Story and the Dark Magic Story down the middle, with nearly interacting very much until the end. And when our heroes get involved, there’s no reason for them to be invested other than they’re nice people who don’t want anything bad to happen.
And they fail at that.
The bad guy reveals himself, and they help capture him. Hooray. Even though the villain, who is apparently an evil genius, gets captured in a foolish manner. It doesn’t matter. It’s just there to set up a possible sequel.
Fantastic Beasts is enjoyable. If you’re a Potter fan, you’ll very likely enjoy it. If you’re not, it’s still a fun movie with some interesting ideas. My distaste for certain conventions means it was unlikely to be a home run for me, but I liked it well enough. Will I go to see the inevitable sequels? Probably not, but that’s irrelevant. The movie stands on its own and gets a thumbs up.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,