The tricky thing about movies and art in general is that you can control how the audience feels about the message of the piece by manipulating its visual packaging.
At its best, you get Zootopia, a movie that speaks truth to power by passing its message in the form of benign animal adventure. The movie leverages its kids’ movie trappings to slip a difficult lesson past our intellectual defenses. In this movie, art expands our horizons, helps us empathize with people we never met, and coaxes us towards truths often too hurtful to say directly.
On the flip side, art can make completely unacceptable messages pass as entertaining, or worse: banal. This is what Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does. To understand how Fantastic Beasts screwed up its message, it’s helpful to examine how the original 7 Harry Potter’s did it right.
In the original series, Rowling depicts a world where racism and eugenics run rampant, kids are regularly subject to torture, slavery is commonplace and where the cycle of oppression between the magical and muggle community is everyday life. Yes, the Harry Potter world is dark and genocidal — but this is an thematically important and acknowledged part of the world.
In the three first HPs, the consequences of these evils were not apparent except in foggy metaphors brought about by the yearly appearance of Voldemort. However, starting in book four, the series owes up to its harrowing premise by laying down long overdue consequences. Major good characters die, Harry wrestles with the guilt caused by his friends’ sacrifice, and is called upon to make painful sacrifices of his own. Starting with Cedric Diggory’s death, the darkness of wizarding Britain comes to collect its due.
But despite the darkness of these books, their message has been consistently clear and intentional:
- A society built on oppression and cowardice has horrible and unavoidable consequences in the long run.
- Love is the answer, but true and devoted love is so hard that you either die young trying (Lily Potter), or live long enough to stray (Dumbledore).
Fantastic Beasts, while depicting a similarly dark world, puts forward the opposite message. The movie’s subtext implies that:
- Cowardice is ok, because the privileged can always count on the system to bail them out at the expense of the less privileged.
- Allowing abuse to happen is ok, as long as you are not the person directly dishing it out.
The former is made plain in Clarence’s story. Fantastic beasts tells us in a long exposé that children like Credence become Obscurials because they repress their magical abilities for fear of muggles hurting them, a fear that wizard kind has largely wrought on itself.
In fact, the books show that this fear is largely caused by imperfect magic control by the magical community. Some people (Kowalski, Lockhart) are left with lingering feelings after being obliviated, others are left with a confusing sense of emptiness, and others still are able to escape the clutches of obliviators. Yet despite the obvious flaws of the memory-wipe spell, the magical governments of the world continue to rely on it as its primary means of preserving magical secrecy.
Over time, the muggles who manage to escape with some or all of memories that manifest themselves in the form of Wizard hate groups such as the one that oppressed and created Credence’s Obscurial.
In short, the flawed spells used to enforce statute of secrecy are responsible for creating the muggle hate groups that persecute children like Clarence until they turn into Obscurials. Yet instead of recognizing the Obscurial as a consequence and responsibility of wizarding government, the American ministry of magic chooses to dispatch a firing squad to kill Credence, whose only crime was to not have been born into a magical household.
This makes the American magical government irresponsible at best and villainous at worst, a fact that the movie doesn’t acknowledge at all. Whereas the original seven HP books were clear about the consequences of the British pure-blood regime, Fantastic Beasts exonerates its villain with a flying deus ex machina.
By burying this lack of acknowledgement beneath a veneer of (admittedly really well done) action, romance and slapstick, Fantastic beasts will have convinced audiences walking out of the theatre that it had a happy ending, when the facts were just the opposite.
To make it worse, I’m sure that the movie makers knew exactly how dark the story of the movie is, because the way they ended the movie was clearly designed to set up a grand conflict for the next four movies to resolve.
The only issue with this strategy is that they didn’t have the courage to tonally acknowledge the looming evil that the end of the movie actually presented, presumably so that they can still make it pass as a family friendly flick.
In doing so, they’ve screwed with the moral compass of the kids who watch the movie. I hope they rectify this with the next movies. The Harry Potter franchise is one of the most powerful and universally acclaimed IPs in the West, and with the way xenophobia is going these days, we really need this franchise to find its positive voice again.