Also published at AiPT!
It’s one of those happy coincidences of the cosmos that the latest film from Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, should come out on exactly the same day as the new Pokémon Sun and Moon games. Immediately after leaving the cinema for the premiere of Fantastic Beasts I headed over to a midnight launch event to pick up my pre-order of the latter, so it’s safe to say that both franchises had been the only things on my mind all day long. And yet, even were such not the case – even had I not thought about Pokémon since the days of Red and Blue on the GameBoy – thematically the two would still have struck my kind as being surprisingly similar. Newt Scamander is, for all intents and purposes, a more charmingly British version of Ash Ketchum, traversing the globe in order to capture creatures rarely seen or studied, containing such behemoth beasts in a pocket dimension whose exterior is significantly smaller than the creatures it contains. That Newt’s primary quest throughout the film is quite literally to “catch ‘em all” essentially made Fantastic Beasts a most fortuitously timed live-action Pokémon adaptation.
Moreover, despite these amazing animals possessing equally extraordinary abilities, Newt does not use them merely as weapons with which to fight his foes (though they do indeed battle alongside him aplenty), but rather also forms genuine bonds of friendship with each of the creatures in his care. In an age when muggles massacred millions of buffalo down to mere hundreds, and wizards were little kinder to the many magical creatures they’d came across, Newt is both exceptional and exemplary – not only in his ethical treatment of the “monsters” in his menagerie, but in his genuine love for them. Indeed, Fantastic Beasts even goes beyond Pokémon in its allegorical apology of animal rights, with Newt noting, “My creatures are all alone and trapped on an island with one-and-a-half million members of the most ferocious species on the planet.” His misanthropy here is hardly without justification, but any cynicism in the character such a statement might suggest is utterly overshadowed by the overwhelming affection he regularly displays towards humans, wizards, and animals alike.
The other major theme tackled by Fantastic Beasts is the fanaticism of fundamentalists and the historical persecution by such groups of the various practices (and practitioners thereof) they’d labelled demonic, satanic, wicked, or witchcraft. The film explicitly ties its antagonists to the Salem Witch Trials, which were not merely the most infamous allegations of witchery in this nation’s history but also perpetrated by the denomination most readily associated with asceticism and pietism: the Puritans, America’s first fundamentalists. A subtler but still present reference to pietism’s pernicious crusading is implicit in the period piece’s Prohibition era setting, the Temperance movement demonizing alcohol through the same moralizing and fear-mongering as the Pilgrims did with dancing and other “vices.” Had Fantastic Beasts been set a bit later, the subject of such satanic scares would have been comic books, heavy metal music, or even Dungeons & Dragons.
Of course, the most famous example of fundamentalist fervor against alleged witchcraft in living memory was the high-profile book burnings many Christian congregations held specifically to immolate copies of the Harry Potter series. The Second Salemers sub-plot is undoubtedly Rowling’s belated response to and critique of such bibliophobic Biblicists. Having grown up in a denomination which occasionally flirted with fairly fundamentalist readings of Scripture (e.g. officially endorsing young-earth creationism), I had good friends through church whose parents strictly forbade their children from any exposure to Potter, either in book or in film (and though I’ve never met any, there even exists self-proclaimed “Christians” who condemn Lewis’ Narniad for merely making mention, even negatively, of magic and witchcraft). Far from a problem peculiar to the colonial period or Prohibition, such “Salemers” are our next-door neighbors, our classmates and coworkers. Like any good period piece, Fantastic Beasts speaks specifically and powerfully to the problems of the present.
As such, this otherwise fantastic film fails in that its central criticism so widely misses the mark. The leader of the Second Salemers (or SS, if you prefer), Mother Barebone, is portrayed primarily as abusive and uncharitable, especially toward her adoptive children. The former strikes me as neither exclusive to nor endemic of fundamentalist, besides bearing no real relation to the burning of Rowling’s books. That latter charge of uncharitableness, on the other hand, is a charge too often wrongly laid on all Christians – indeed all people of faith – from those of a secular persuasion. Such a charge is wrong not because it is inaccurate (as indeed, saints and sinners alike fail daily in the command to love their neighbors), but because secularists only judge religions according to their utility to society – not their veracity – with the faithful facing such accusations fully aware of such.
Rather, the real problem with fundamentalists is their intellectual provincialism. They accept a priori the authority of Scripture because that was the tradition into which they were raised, never venturing far from that ideological hometown, never learning to examine external evidence or think critically for themselves. They have a stunted epistemology, based on the Bible as the source of truth, but with no firmer foundation for the Bible to be based upon. But far from narrowmindedness, Barebone is a stark contrast to the other No-Majs who completely close off the possibility of the paranormal. Moreover, she discerns the differences between mundane and magical with absolute accuracy, unlike her real-world counterparts who confused the occasional Latin phrase or mere mention of terms such as alchemy and divination as inducting innocents into the occult (in fact, the recent Doctor Strange film has more references to “real” magic, with the titular hero seen studying the Lesser Key of Solomon; or for a truly terrific primer into real magic, read Alan Moore’s magnum opus Promethea). A better approach would have been – despite witches really existing in the Potterverse – for the Second Salemers’ fearmongering to itself be baseless ignorance. Barebone’s perceptiveness gives too much credit to the fundamentalists of whom she’s a satire.
The other main muggle character besides Barebone is equally unlikable, despite every character constantly telling him otherwise. From the first moments meeting Jacob Kowalski and learn his highest ambition is to open up a bakery, the character comes across as trite, nothing more than an unnecessary audience surrogate devised to ground this fantastical film for us non-magical moviegoers… except for the fact that this is a world with which most watching are intimately familiar.
Worse yet is the romantic subplot between Kowalski and the bewitchingly beautiful (though not as nearly compared to her sister) Queenie. That he’d be so instantly infatuated with her is perfectly plausible, but what she ever sees in him is never explained – indeed, defies explanation! Moreover, this rotund oaf is utterly unworried that the woman he’s courting can (and does) peruse his private thoughts at any and all times. Sorry, but no man is that wholesome. Witchcraft and wizardry I’m willing to accept, but her attraction to him and his perfection of heart both break my suspension of disbelief.
But worst of all, having had his understanding of reality widened in learning about the existence of magic and having somehow caught the eye of a woman – whether a witch or not – the likes of which will never again ardor after so average a bloke, he willingly gives up both for no reason other than a vague notion that the world of magic is not meant for mere mortals like him. Personally, as a Neoplatonist (of sorts), I hold the three highest ends as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. That Kowalski would fail to fight with fiercest fervor in his one opportunity to hold on to such a profound truth, such superior beauty (relative to his portly physique), robs me of all respect for the character. But even those who don’t hold to such values can still see the absurdity of his decision. He’s capitulating to undergo the equivalent of a Rohypnol overdoes due to an unjust law enforced by a rogue state (the Magical Congress of the United States of America) with no legal jurisdiction over him. It’s the equivalent of him seducing a femme fatale from the KGB, learning classified Soviet secrets, and then agreeing to undergo a lobotomy (all while on American soil) in order to protect Russian interests. His climatic decision is neither noble nor sensible.
Despite such nitpicks, I truly did enjoy the film, and while there is even more to find fault with (such as the verisimilitude-shattering shoddy CGI), all the more there’s much to praise; too much, indeed, for the purposes of a brief review. So let me simply conclude with such: Lewis, Rowling’s predecessor and the British children’s fabulist par excellence, famously stated, “[A boy] does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” Starring out over the Manhattan skyline today, as I so often do, I was struck anew with such a sense of Sehnsucht. Immediately I knew that I’d not merely watched a movie the evening earlier, but had indeed stepped through a portal to a more magical Manhattan, and having experienced its enchantment, my Manhattan was all the more magical for it.