Monday, December 12, 2016

I Didn't Like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Okay, so I might be weeks late, and many people might have already posted on this topic, but hey, maybe many of you have also already seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and maybe many of you weren't certain why you didn't like the movie or maybe you want to discuss the movie, in its glories or failings.

Hihihi, let's chat!

I saw this movie on Black Friday, so please forgive me if I've forgotten some details (e.g., I forgot the name of the No-Maj (and the name of Emo Kid aka Credence) until I started looking for the articles I wanted to link to, but honestly, to me, he's still the No-Maj and Credence is still Emo Kid). Here's your spoiler alert if you haven't seen this movie yet.

1.) The Use (and Metaphor) of Magic

It seemed to me like there was an underlying metaphor to who had magic and who didn't in this film, more so than there had been in Harry Potter (at least in Harry Potter, you had Hermione's family to contrast with the Dursleys, and it didn't feel like there was a statement on Magic vs. No Magic). Who are the people in this film who don't have magic?

The No-Maj (i.e., Jacob) and Crazy Extremist Lady (i.e., Mary Lou) and some of her foster children (i.e., Modesty and the other girl I can't remember & I didn't see in articles). So I'm left looking at how magic is generally portrayed and their circumstances, if I'm to understand what magic means in this new Fantastic Beasts world.

No-Maj works in a factory and can't get a loan from the bank because he doesn't have anything else to offer them. Crazy Extremist Lady is living in a small, tattered apartment - minimalist - and abuses her children. So, the portrayal of No-Majs, so far, is as if they're not living privileged lives. And then you get Tina and Queenie who, with a flick of their wands, can make bakery goods so good that No-Maj is impressed; he, in his life, could never achieve that level of greatness.

I once read a critique of the way magic was portrayed in Harry Potter. I thought it was on Reading with a Vengeance (great blog, btw), but I couldn't find the quote (but basically it's along these lines). But look at this, magic is basically used as a way to undercut/undervalue the physical labor that No-Maj would have put in; their magic makes the food even better than he can make it. And then combine that with how the other circumstances are, and it just seems like magic is this giant metaphor for privilege. We're so privileged, we don't have to make our own food, etc. We don't have to work in this factory that you hate. Which, quite frankly, is kind of gross to me, especially how it continues to be treated in the movie.

2.) The Same Exact Formula

I can't decide whether JKR knew what she was going for here, or if this was a mistake, but the characters in this film, and the plot, are almost the exact same formula as with the Harry Potter books, especially book 1.

Newt Scamander is basically Harry: awkward white boy who has no friends but who has good intentions, and it's his journey to find love and connection. Dumbledore stands up for him. He has to fight against the Magical Congress, because they don't see his good intentions. Wants to save animals (humans in HP). Decently proficient at magic.

Tina is basically Hermione: also smart and brave and with good intentions. Hermione was upset when Snape broke rules and her expectations by bullying her in his class -- like Tina, who expects that confronting New Salem woman would be all and well. (Both are idealists in that regard, particularly when it comes to the power structures. Watch to see if Tina gets disillusioned by the end...). They both follow rules, Tina turning in Newt even when that wasn't expedient. Both good at magic - no way Tina would've been an Auror otherwise. Both want to "fight against the dark." Mousy white girls who get ignored in favor of the more bold, brash ones (i.e., how they portray Tina compared to Leta Lestrange, the "taker" while Tina is the "giver" lol) (until they become more bold, which may also happen with Tina in later films.).

No-Maj/Jacob is basically Ron: Ron sucked at magic, he was basically a Muggle for the number of times his spells were actually helpful (him stabbing the horcrux, for instance, isn't a spell - that's more to do with his personality than his magic). Ron was basically used for comedic relief. No-Maj is the Muggle, and was used for comedic relief (his and Queenie's relationship), and of course he and Harry/Newt become quick friends, the white dude who bumbles about while others do the harder work.

Queenie is basically Ginny: she's the bolder of the girls, she's confident and knows what she wants and how to go for it (I should say the later Ginny). She's not a part of the main trio, but gets incorporated into the main trio through her relationships with the others. She's good at magic too, has a particularly specialty (Legimens for Queenie, Bat-Boogie hexes for Ginny). etc. etc.

The only difference is that JKR has eliminated the family bond of Ron/Ginny and made it Tina/Queenie, which I guess makes it easier to pair everyone up.

The President of Magical Congress-- I didn't remember her name either. I don't know if they said it...? Or just Madame President or something? She's like Cornelius Fudge #2. A figurehead in the most important magical institution in the U.S., who doesn't believe our hero about the dangers of the evil magic in he city. [side note: I looove the fact that there's a black woman president, but like, can actually give her a.) some personality/lines beyond acting like a figurehead! and b.) something to do instead of being a figurehead for your other message of not trusting institutions? Literally reduced to a puppet arghhhh].

Mr. Graves turning into Grindelwald -- oh, hey, Quirrell, unwrapping your turban to reveal Voldemort on the back of your head!

I could go on, but the other thing really is how FLAT all of these characters were. The actors did a decent job with what they had (Colin Farrell, Eddie Redmayne, Queenie's actress, etc.)... But c'mon, Newt as nerdy white awkward boy, that was an okay thing for a book with an eleven-year-old main character, whose personality is still developing. When he's an adult, it's not cute anymore. It's boring, and it's annoying that yet another nerdy white awkward boy is supposed to be the star of a major film franchise (or I guess in this case, my friend told me that the next films are on Grindelwald and Newt and co. are side characters? Dunno, point still sticks, since he started it off).

Not to mention how many of these characters had such generic names! I didn't remember Credence or Modesty (I legit thought was it Hope? Charity?). I forgot No-Maj's name. Forgot the President's name. It was like everything about this movie was just forgettable.

And it gets kind of annoying that for a new franchise, you're still using some of the same tropes...

3.) White, white, white

Jesus, this movie was as white as pumpkin spice lattes. JKR got defensive about the lack of diversity around the time when people were criticizing her for her Magic in North America stories and their problematic elements. She suggested that you wait until you see the movie to judge and that not everyone had been cast yet. Having seen Fantastic Beasts, no, things don't really seem well done or the lack of diversity justified. There are smarter people out there who have already addressed this issue, so I'll refer to their posts here.

First off, this post has a great Harlem Renaissance Fantastic Beasts trailer (also I felt the same exact way going into Fantastic Beasts, the point about Tina/Mary Lou is spot-on, etc. etc. Read the post).

Second, this:
This isn’t about diversity for the sake of diversity (and also, is that truly a bad thing?). True representation is about challenging the notion that the default condition is white, male, and straight. It is about challenging what we think of as normal. [...] But Fantastic Beasts is a brand new project with little to no canon informing it, so the fact that this project currently offers less diverse casting, even with this added flexibility, is a problem.
I might understand if this was a lesser known author who had been pressured by a film studio into having a primarily white cast, and the choice was between that or not having the film made at all. But Fantastic Beasts was riding on people's love of Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, essentially, and my understanding is that Warner Brothers really, really wanted to invest in this and get a new franchise out of her. Which means that she probably had a lot of negotiating power with Warner Brothers, if she wanted to pursue this line of topic.

And as that post suggests, JKR had to spell out that Tina and Queenie are of Jewish descent. I don't remember any emphasis on Goldstein in the film (in fact, doesn't Tina call Newt Mr. Scamander while he calls her Tina, not Ms. Goldstein?), or any signs that the two were religious at all, or had any Jewish symbols in their home, etc. If it's told to you outside of canon (i.e., what happens in the film), they're not putting much emphasis on that aspect being important to the character's identity or development.

(Did I miss it with Tina and Queenie? Please inform me if so.)

And as this post suggests:
Fantastic Beasts does not feature any visible characters with a disability. Notably, Tina and Queenie Goldstein and Jacob Kowalski are all characters of Jewish descent (with Jacob even featuring Hebrew characters in his bakery). There are no other characters with an outwardly stated religion. There are no stated queer characters. There is a bit of queer subtext between two male characters, but it’s disappointingly between — wait for it — two of the villains, and it’s clearly depicted as an abusive relationship. I have no words.

The one outstanding character of color we have is Madam President Seraphina Picquery of the Magical Congress of the USA, played excellently by Carmen Ejogo.

[...]

But for now, for most of Fantastic Beasts’ run time she’s relegated to being mostly on the sidelines [...]

Seraphina also has a bevy of Aurors, some of whom are people of color. While, again, I am excited they’ll play bigger roles in future films, in Fantastic Beasts they’re mostly seen and not heard. [...]

...looks like a magical United Nations. Here we see a full degree of racial diversity on display, and yet almost none of them except Seraphina speak at all. We do see Gemma Chan, the wonderful main actress from AMC’s Humans, in a terribly small role. She speaks maybe two lines and spends the rest of the time looking disapprovingly at Newt.

[...]

And then from there we devolve into troubling bit parts for the other characters of color. Miquel Brown plays a magical executioner who smiles unnervingly at Alison Sudol’s Tina (Newt’s love interest in this story) while she goads Tina into essentially killing herself.

Aretha Ayeh plays a goblin singing in a magical speakeasy... The goblin is clearly coded as Black, which forces us to contemplate the confounding question of whether or not goblins even have ethnicities. In a film largely lacking in people of color, was it necessary to have a goblin, of all things, be coded in this way? Why in the world couldn’t Aretha Ayeh have just played an actual human woman?

And then there’s Leta Lestrange, the woman Newt is clearly still in love with. She’s played by Zoe Kravitz and in Fantastic Beasts is seen only briefly in a photograph. [...]

Leta may end up being the poor Cho Chang of this tale: Yates describes her as a “tragic figure” who is “damaged and confused.” Tina’s sister describes Leta as “a taker,” and that Newt really needs “a giver” [...]
That post is so good. Highly recommend that y'all read it in full. Like I said, there are people much smarter than me who have already tackled how this film (& HP) sucks at diversity.

As for me, I didn't even notice that Jacob/No-Maj's bakery had Jewish symbols. It's one of those signs that was relegated to the side, and at the very end of the movie, which I'm only going to notice if I'm not antsy after two hours. If you want this to be an important aspect of his character, you introduce it earlier, when we're still looking for ways to understand who he is. The main purpose of the bakery scene was also to emphasize that he had creative designs for his foods (i.e., the animals he forgot) and the romance between Queenie and him, which means that smaller things like Jewish symbols are going to get lost in the folds. Maybe my argument is stretched thin here. I wouldn't doubt it. But doesn't mean the film is great at diversity either (see the post I quoted).

Also 100% relevant (from that same post). I believe there's even a Junot Díaz quote about this (I couldn't find it, though) --
"Why is it so often that when there’s a film that uses an analogy for marginalized people — X-Men, The Hunger Games, Fantastic Beasts — the actual “marginalized people” are almost always predominantly played by white, straight, cis, able-bodied actors?"
So much more can be said on that end. I'm really going to have to find that Junot Díaz quote...

Maybe things will "get better" in future films. But this is a start to a franchise. You've got to convince people that it's worth their money to continue. I'm not convinced.

Religion is also particularly hard to understand with the Harry Potter universe. What does Jacob, Queenie, and Tina being Jewish mean in this world? What did Christmas really mean? I *think* that Christmas was included in the HP universe because she had strong Christian themes and that, in part, was meant as a clue. (Or was just a part of the default, again, that of course all the kids at Hogwarts are celebrating Christmas). Are there strong Jewish themes in Fantastic Beasts? Not that I recognized-- did you see any? And because it's veering close to World War I and then maybe World War II, depending on how much of a time gap happens as the next four films are made about Grindelwald, there will be the scapegoating of Jews. But that doesn't resolve how magic fits into our common notions of these religious structures. What does magic mean in the context of both (really: all) religions? That was unanswered in HP, too.

It reminds me of what this post said about Seraphina:
As for logistics: as much as I love Seraphina, how is she the head of MACUSA when it’s still the 1920s in America? Sure, she’s a wizard, but to non-magical Americans she’s still a Black woman in the 1920s, you guys. The years of race riots and Jim Crow laws still existing. How does she move through the world outside of magical spaces? Are we to believe wizards are less racist? If so… why is the wizarding world that we’ve seen so far still so damn white?
What are the logistics? The Harry Potter follows our own closely in terms of major historical events (JKR drawing the parallel between Grindelwald at 1945 and end of WWII. So what does this mean for how people's identities are coded and how magic mixes with them?).

It's kinda like, okay, 'this film is going to get criticized for the lack of diversity, so here, let's throw this in without much thought or explanation, and that should satisfy people, right?'

4.) Dumbledore, wtf?

I felt like this movie just shat more on Dumbledore (or I didn't think through his legacy enough). I'm not that involved in the fandom anymore, and I don't remember if they ever revealed Dumbledore's exact age, i.e., when exactly he was born. But then hearing that Dumbledore was a professor at Hogwarts who had stood up for Newt... aka Dumbledore was a professor at Hogwarts by the 1920s... yet didn't "stand up" to Grindelwald until WWII, right? Was it not 1945, intended as a metaphor for the Nazi regime? In which case, Dumbledore literally let Grindelwald prance around the world, destroying people for over two decades. Wtf.

And also, how old was he when Harry was at Hogwarts? To be a professor by the 1920s, established enough that people in America have apparently also heard of him (though I guess Mr. Graves is Grindelwald and G was friends with D, so that might be a different case), means that he was born in the 1900s?? Maybe?? So was he close to 100 in the original series?? Over 100? How does he live that long, when it's suggested that he doesn't take any of the Philosopher's elixir? Again, does magic fit within that metaphor of privilege, such that being a magician means you have access to the best of everything and can somehow outlive every other human?

FYI: I just looked up Dumbledore on Wikipedia. Others are apparently confused, too:
Rowling said in an interview that Dumbledore was about 150 years old.[11] However, on her website, she states that Dumbledore was born in 1881, making him either 115 or 116 when he died.[12]
Still confused. And still "wtf" at the lack of courage on D's part.

5.) The American Dream

I guess my interpretation of this should change somewhat since No-Maj may have Jewish ancestry. But my reading of this was how the movie played into the American Dream. No-Maj can't open his bakery without someone having faith in him. He meets the right people and then is given all the money he needs to do what he wants, to be successful. It gives him the American Dream without ever delving into the politics, whereby mostly privileged people (white men) fit into that Dream story. It just felt like, oh, of course, of effing course.

6.) Can We Not Pair Up Every Single Couple?

One reason why I feel like I can't read certain series is that they end up doing what a lot of fanfic does, and pair up every single character so that there's not one person alone by the end. It's okay, you know, for someone to not have that romance. Being a hero or heroine should be enough without the romantic aspect shoved in, especially when there's no chemistry (sorry, Tina and Newt. Your personalities weren't given much chance to shine in the film...).

Plus, this post already points out the problematic aspect of the Newt, Leta Lestrange, and Tina love triangle:
If the Leta/Newt/Tina triangle plays out as expected, this will be the second time in the Potterverse that a white male protagonist ends up with a white woman because his first love with a woman of color was the wrong fit (because she’s mentally unstable, to boot). Or if we’re counting Cursed Child, it would be the third time, as the future where Ron ended up with Padma was considered the wrong future.
If I had to pick one of the main couples, I'd like the No-Maj and Queenie together (even though I wasn't a huge fan of Queenie's portrayal - I think that's because she was pushed to the side when she was more capable than almost every other main character). At least then JKR sticks with her other themes of No-Maj/Muggle/Wizards mixing, instead of leading to shitty diversity portrayals.

7.) Unanswered Shit:

These all felt like plot holes or reused tropes--

Why would Newt even bring these other creatures with him? Does he not have family? Could he not have entrusted them to Dumbledore at Hogwarts, where there was probably someone who could take care of the magical creatures? He's endangering their lives for the sake of the thunderbird.

I heard somewhere that Newt and co. aren't even going to be the main characters in the next books. So why would they be featured here? If I was a fan, I would be upset that the characters who I'd been introduced to and was supposed to like were not the ones who I followed in the next books. It kinda just seems like they wanted to start a franchise and one good thing to do with franchises is to have a lot of material to sell as merchandise (here: all Newt's animals). So who cares if it doesn't make sense why he has all the animals with him, it'll sell them merchandise, and the story of how Grindelwald infiltrated the Magical Congress (which I'm assuming next films get into) wouldn't have as much merchandise.

How is the Thunderbird that different from the phoenix? Isn't it another version of the myth of phoenixes/firebirds/etc.? But at any rate, this film was basically solved with deus-ex-machina. Of course the Thunderbird was going to be able to fly into the sky and cry all the tears that make people forget. There's no real tension, no conflict. It's solved so easily.

And so much more. This post is too long lol.

Also, eff Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. Colin Farrell was great as Mr. Graves, and I will admittedly say that I don't know that much about Colin Farrell, but it wasn't that long ago that Johnny Depp was in the news for potentially abusing his wife. And if you're trying to convince people that you care about diversity, why would you cast Johnny Depp (aka problematic dude, see The Lone Ranger controversy, which is even covered on Wikipedia)?

Basically, I expected more from a woman who had so painstakingly plotted out the metaphorical elements of Harry Potter. (For more, you should read some of John Granger's work. It goes into the Christian themes, the postmodernism, etc.).

I mean, to some extent Fantastic Beasts has classic JKR too, with the metaphor of the Obscurus. You can't suppress what you are. Only in accepting who you are can you be your full self / live a happy, full life, and yes, the whole idea that a fascist regime would take advantage of children who don't fully understand what is going on but just want to be accepted also makes sense. And I will say that JKR fooled me with the reveal that Credence was the Obscurus and not his little sister. The theme of not trusting institutions (like the Magical Congress and the bank) to have your best interest at heart and the fascist haircuts and underlying fascist themes/references to World War I feel particularly relevant, especially here in the U.S. and the growing far-right problem in Europe. The creatures Newt had were cute, sure, and the graphics well done, the coloring gorgeous in some shots.

But there are other movies and books that do that and more.

(Images were taken from a simple Google search of the movie via CinemaBravo, Pottermore and JoBlo. I do not own the copyright to any of these photos.)

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