'Fantastic Beasts' Forgot To Do The Thing That Made 'Harry Potter' Succeed
A new Fantastic Beasts movie is upon us, which means it's time for Harry Potter fans to once again decide if it's worth it to go sit down in a dark room for 142 minutes just to bum themselves out (especially when they can get the same effect by just looking at J.K. Rowling's Twitter feed). This is now the dullest major movie franchise with the word "Fantastic" in the title, which is no small feat given the competition. It's like this series just sorta ... forgot what it was that made the Harry Potter movies work in the first place. Check out the trailer for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (or "Sorcerer's Stone" if the word "Philosopher" intimidates you as much as Scholastic thought it would).
Humor! Adventure! Suspense! More than five colors! Elements almost completely absent from the trailer for The Secrets of Dumbledore, which feels like a list of plot points being dutifully checked off a list just because the series committed to doing them long ago, not because there's any actual enthusiasm for the material.
Even when they go back to settings from the original movies for some easy nostalgia points, they still go out of their way to make everything look as dull as possible to let you know that these movies aren't for children anymore.
And sure, the earliest movies had "dark" moments too, but at least you could tell what the hell was going on in them.
Also, compare the treatment of child abuse in Harry Potter, where Harry lives with a bunch of cartoonishly evil relatives and gets his revenge on them via flying cars and silly inflation spells with Fantastic Beasts, where Ezra Miller's character is belted by his adoptive mother and ends up killing her and his sister by turning into the Smoke Monster from Lost.
We went from pure escapism to "Hey, let's make everyone sad because that's what adults want in a movie, right?" "Aging" the franchise makes sense from a business perspective -- all the millions of kids who grew up reading Harry Potter books in the late '90s and '00s are
satanists adults now and have more money to spend on movie tickets and overpriced "special edition" popcorn buckets. But what the filmmakers are forgetting is that Harry Potter without childlike wonder is like Jurassic Park without dinosaurs, or Fast & Furious without cars, or like if they did a Star Wars movie that was set entirely in New Jersey.
The original movies were all about following Harry along on his journey as he (and us) constantly went, "You can DO that?!" Even the later movies are about Harry learning new stuff and putting that information to use in unexpected ways. The magic felt magical because we were discovering and experiencing it along with Harry. Meanwhile, Fantastic Beasts treats magic like something that's already there. The characters are as astonished by it as they are by their own shoes. Magic is just another visual element to use in action scenes that really wish they were in a Marvel movie.
The most surprising magical aspect are the fantastic beasts themselves -- too bad that the protagonist happens to be the one character who already knows all about them. The tone went from "You can DO that?!" to "Duh, of course, you can that." The result is adults being deathly serious within the context of a world that was conceptually designed for children. In Harry Potter, magic wands are instruments of wonder that make it feel like anything's possible. In Fantastic Beasts, they're mostly just guns that shoot shiny bullets ... which ends up looking even goofier.
The change in approach might be worth it if these movies were at least good at telling "adult" stories, but that's not the case. The second Fantastic Beasts tries to give itself some weight by introducing the idea that the villain was trying to prevent the horrors of World War II (heavy stuff for something based on a 128-page illustrated children's book written as a charity throwaway) but he's still very obviously a bad guy who secretly wants to murder all humans and is just throwing the Holocaust stuff in there to con people. There's no real moral dilemma for the other characters; the dude's just evil.
In the new movie (spoilers ahead), he gets himself elected Wizard President via election fraud ... which consists of putting a spell on the magic dragon-horse who picks the winner. Nobody actually votes for him -- in fact, the characters have no actual political opinions beyond "evil bad." (At least until Rowling reveals them on Twitter 10 years later.)
Even if you think the last few of the Harry Potter movies ended up being a drag, at least the darker tone there was a natural result of the characters growing up and the ongoing story reaching a somewhat logical conclusion. Here, it's just a calculated decision to appeal to a specific target audience and squeeze more money out of a generation that has already given J.K. Rowling more than enough. Let us hope that when they inevitably turn some other short work of hers into a five-movie series, at least they'll keep it consistent with what made this franchise beloved in the first place. (Hopefully, that “short work” isn't one of her tweets, because oof.)
Top image: Warner Bros. Pictures