10:00 am EST, November 17, 2018

For the love of Dumbledore, Fantastic Beasts needs to stop trying to be Harry Potter

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is to Harry Potter what The Hobbit movies were to Lord of the Rings. And it would have been so easy to avoid.

This articles contains references to, but no explicit spoilers for, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. It does, however, contain spoilers for The Cursed Child.

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“Neither can live while the other survives.”

The infamous prophecy about Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, and how it is impossible for them both to exist simultaneously, now feels painfully prescient to the struggle between two increasingly contradictory texts: the Harry Potter series and J.K. Rowling’s expanded Wizarding World franchise.

Because as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has made obvious, the only way Rowling and her team can think to make this new franchise a success is to repeat plotlines from Harry Potter and retcon familiar storylines and character backstories, adding unnecessary and sometimes contradictory new content that manages to cheapen both the new and old series.

And it didn’t have to be that way. Because buried within the depths of the messy The Crimes of Grindelwald are some really compelling characters that could have laid the foundation for brand new, unique stories within the Wizarding World if J.K. Rowling, David Yates and Warner Bros. had had enough confidence to let them exist on their own merit.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was ostensibly marketed as (and, I would venture to guess, originally intended to be) a fun standalone offshoot of the Potter series based on a for-charity mock textbook, following bit character Newt Scamander and his explorations of the magical wilderness.

It was part of a wider marketing strategy which sought to expand Rowling’s original Harry Potter world beyond Harry himself, under the umbrella brand ‘The Wizarding World.’ There would be theme parks, standalone movies, plays, merchandise, games, brand new reading experiences and an interactive website.

Potter was the launching pad, but there would never be another Harry Potter story, because the Wizarding World was much bigger than him, and J.K. Rowling had a wealth of other ideas that she wanted to explore. It was going to be fun, and colorful, and exciting.

…That is how I vaguely remember it being presented to us, anyway.

Yet here we are, on release weekend for The Crimes of Grindelwald and, just as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child turned out to be less about Harry, Ron and Hermione’s children and their brand new adventures and more about Time Turners, the Goblet of Fire, making Harry a Bad Dad and giving Voldemort a fanfic daughter, the Fantastic Beasts series has revealed itself to actually be a five-part Harry Potter prequel, very heavily tied into the story we know, with Rowling seemingly unwilling or unable to let go of the themes and characters that launched her career.

Despite the initial promise of Newt Scamander as a very different lead character with a very different arc and agenda, The Crimes of Grindelwald pivots us right back to what defined the Harry Potter saga: the rise of a dark lord, the battle between good and evil, and the life and lies of Albus Dumbledore.

Is this a bad thing? Certainly not for people who want more of the same — though it is hard to argue that The Crimes of Grindelwald actually caters to Harry Potter fans, since the movie clearly does not give a flying Hippogriff about this thing the nerds call canon, or the so-called sanctity of the original story.

In many big and small ways, this movie appears to mock fans who have come to ‘believe’ in the original story Rowling told. You already know that Minerva McGonagall appears in this film, despite the fact that she was born in 1935; Dumbledore’s teaching position has conveniently changed from Transfiguration to Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Voldemort’s Horcrux snake Nagini was actually a cursed woman all along. (Sure, that was already canon when Wormtail milked her. Sure.)

And those are far from the biggest Harry Potter tie-ins that this series has in store for audiences. The retconning is off the charts, to the point where it is hard to take the so-called ‘twist’ seriously. Between everyone turning into each other via Polyjuice Potion all the time and Rowling seemingly giving herself a carte blanche to undo or change previously established canon, it’s hard to tell what we’re supposed to care about and if anything really matters.

And maybe we aren’t meant to care. Maybe none of this is meant to matter. The Crimes of Grindelwald is, in broad strokes, more tonally aligned with Cursed Child than with the Harry Potter novels (or even movies), and as many individuals will point out to you if you deign to express disappointment on Twitter, Potter fans don’t have to care about or pay attention to these new additions to the Wizarding World.

Fantastic Beasts, like Cursed Child, is a spectacle — a magical circus, if you will — complete with characters directly addressing the camera. It’s not Harry Potter.

…If only it would let me enjoy it on that premise, rather than insisting on making everything relevant to Harry Potter and forcing me to judge the Fantastic Beasts franchise by its (impossibly high) standard.

Because Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is not just a spectacle, and it’s certainly not fun. It’s about a dark lord gathering followers who believe themselves to be better than Muggles; it’s about Albus Dumbledore playing puppet master and #concealdontfeel; it’s about the Ministry of Magic proving that bureaucracy is the real big bad, and it’s about the all-encompassing battle of good vs evil.

It is, basically, Harry Potter all over again (there is a particularly teeth-grinding sequence featuring a toddler which perfectly epitomizes this series’ desperate desire to recapture the Harry Potter magic), and it tries very, very hard to expand on the original novel series and make audiences question everything they think they know — and some things they definitely do know — as though new Potter ‘canon’ (contradictory or not) is the only thing of substance this movie series could possibly have to offer.

And that is a big part of what makes the movie so frustrating, ridiculous retcons aside. Because we’ve been here before. The Hobbit movies already made these mistakes — trying to beef up a tiny bit of source material, tying the story back to the first series in completely unnecessary ways, re-creating the same character archetypes and unnecessarily expanding the backstory of its ancient wizard — and everyone recognized that they were mistakes at the time!

There was a good story in The Hobbit, too, tonally different from Lord of the Rings, a more light-hearted, less life-or-death tale. But they wanted another Lord of the Rings. Just like Warner Bros., evidently, is not content with Newt Scamander and his beasts. They want another Harry Potter.

Warner Bros. should know better. J.K. Rowling should know better. She does know better. Regardless of questionable decisions, I don’t believe anyone could conscientiously claim that Rowling is a one-trick pony, or that she has run out of good ideas. On the contrary, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is full of them. There is a really good, original Wizarding World story buried beneath the clunky Harry Potter prequel someone threw on top of it.

The parts of The Crimes of Grindelwald that work best are the parts that distance themselves from Harry Potter completely: the parts where Newt is allowed to be a zoologist, where Leta Lestrange is allowed to expound upon her complicated, compelling past, and the extended sequence inside Newt’s suitcase of beasts (minus, er, Bunty. Seriously, WTF?).

In short: the fantastic part, that allows us to glimpse a Wizarding World that isn’t in the process of dividing itself into good people and Death Eaters, and where everything isn’t life or death or deus ex Polyjuice Potion.

But any attempts the movie makes to start down original paths with characters exclusive to this saga are thwarted before they can properly begin. In my opinion, the worst crime of Grindelwald isn’t the controversial ending, but rather what happens to one (or two, or three) of its core characters, who become victims of a story that no longer has room for them to be anything but plot devices.

Nobody, not even Newt Scamander, has much to do in this film other than play witness to a story we already know. Grindelwald is just a chill Voldemort, with no hint of nuance. Jacob, Tina and Queenie are inconsequential at best, and horribly mishandled at worst. Credence is in a holding pattern for most of the movie. Nagini could have been cut out of the film completely and it would have made zero difference. The absolute standout character is Leta Lestrange, but the movie still manages to wreck her potential. (Jude Law as Dumbledore is, in my opinion, the movie’s only saving grace.)

Rather than venturing into uncharted territory and telling new stories within the Wizarding World, with this exciting and diverse new cast of characters, the Fantastic Beasts series keeps yo-yoing back to Potter-adjacent storylines, frustratingly never letting the world expand beyond those narrow borders, and hand-waving away all story elements and characters not directly relevant to the forthcoming Dumbledore-Grindelwald showdown.

This has the very ironic effect of making the Wizarding World feel small and restricted, rather than bigger and more imaginative. We’re shackled by clichéd and limiting narrative tropes, a one-note dark lord and mindless cronies on one side, and good people making very stupid decisions on the other, hopping from ministry to ministry and using wands like guns. There appears to be nothing more to the Wizarding World than what we saw in Harry Potter, and the actually impressive world of Newt’s fantastic beasts is literally locked away in a suitcase.

Harry Potter Streaming HBO

There are many obvious reasons why Fantastic Beasts’ refusal to cut the cord and take itself and its own story potential seriously is disappointing. For one thing, introducing world-breaking new canon cheapens and destabilizes the believability of one of the most beloved fictional universes of all time, whatever loopholes Rowling finds to explain them away. As a Harry Potter fan, it’s painful to watch. (And I’m not alone in this feeling.)

But it also squanders any potential the Fantastic Beasts franchise might once have had the potential to be, on its own merit. What happened to the idea of a movie about a magical zoologist and his adventures in the Wizarding World wilderness? What happened to branching out, to telling other, different stories?

Why does the Wizarding World franchise insist on being AU Harry Potter fanfiction, poking holes in a perfectly complete story that, miraculously, almost every single fan was happy with, and forcing in new, unnecessary (and cliché) plot twists? Why are we still circling around the same dried-up well, trying to pump new drama from a story that has already been told, rather than bravely throwing ourselves into something new and letting the characters become fleshed out and make interesting and unexpected decisions?

Where are the grand new ideas, the brave new forays into the expansive magical universe that we know Rowling has mapped out in her head (although the Harry Potter Encyclopaedia remains as ever unwritten)? Where is the promise of this fantastic beast that Newt Scamander’s story could have been? Where is the magic?

Either J.K. Rowling really only has one story worth telling — or, more likely, Warner Bros. only believes there is one story worth selling. And what a disappointing, limited approach to storytelling that is.

There are still three Fantastic Beasts movies left. (Gulp.) The way I see it, J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. can either use them as a giant, extended ‘f you’ to Harry Potter fans, continuing to cheapen the original saga with retcons and repeats, or they can embrace the chance to prove that the Wizarding World is about more than just Harry Potter.

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