The trick to getting value from reviews is to find a reviewer whose tastes match your own and then look for the thumbs-up/down signal in their review. Star ratings are awesome for this, except for that 3-star recommendation where the reviewer is basically shrugging. So in the interests of unambiguity and simplicity, so there’s no confusion about my views, this is a 3-star film. As always, spoilers from here – in fact, I’m assuming you’ve already seen it at the point where you click “more”.
So here’s what you’ve probably gotten from other reviewers: the film is pretty obviously two completely different stories joined at a number of hinge points. Even alert reviewers who like the film will lament the consequent unevenness in tone from the loss of unity of action. I think older reviewers will also probably find the special effects and set design amazing, while younger reviewers will recognise that this film is just what you get these days from a major studio. I’d expect almost everyone to comment on how this film is “more grownup” because the actors are adults, a position for which there is little actual support from the film. There’ll likely be some comment on how disconnected the film is from Hogwarts and I’ll get to how that’s the inevitable pun. As usual, all the reviews I’ve read have more-or-less missed the things I found interesting about the film’s deeper structures and are satisfied to have identified what happens in the films and recognised some features of the film design.
The two plots are fairly evenly balanced in screen time and emphasis, but when you untangle the events of the film it becomes apparent that Newt Scamander’s [Eddie Redmayne] plot-line about recovering animals that have escaped from his menagerie is constructed to service Graves’ [Colin Farrell] about finding a destructive magical power. If you had to separate these conjoined twin plots, Graves’ could survive by itself while I think Newt’s would be little more than three set pieces devoid of much meaning. What we need to understand is what Newt’s somewhat inconsequential story adds to the main storyline.
The main storyline is driven by a simple idea, that the magical and non-magical/muggle communities should be kept separate, one secret from the other. This status-quo is being threatened by the magical destruction wrought by, what, a wizard? a monster? Both – a monster created by the tormented psyche of a child forbidden to use magic. The explanation given in the film is that this is a sickness that has been eliminated by the segregation of the magical community, which allows all children born with magic to be identified and trained within a globally-safe environment for the child. The strictness of the separation in the USA is assumed to be a factor in the rarity of the condition – so rare that it is almost literally unthinkable to the American magical elite pondering the destruction being wrought on their city.
I think it’s worth dwelling on that concept for a moment, especially when reading reviews like Wendy Ide’s:
This highly entertaining twist on jazz age America breathes fresh life into the Potter franchise – and, with its themes of society divided and the persecution of minorities, the film finds itself to be perfectly timed.
The minority in this case is the wizarding world, consciously isolated and living entirely within its own confines. They protect themselves from the “Second Salem” promised by one group of antagonists by preserving complete anonymity and by wiping the memories of anyone unfortunate enough to find out the truth. It is the ultimate apartheid, created and sustained by what I can only think of as the darkest magic. Consider the unraveling that Marti Noxon explored in her stint as show-runner for Buffy in season 6 when Willow began altering memories to suit her agenda. Newt Scamander expresses token objections to this logic, but ultimately the logic of the world and the power of the establishment overrule him and the film ends with the complete restoration of the pre-film status-quo which is hard to read as anything other than a structural endorsement of that status-quo. Happy endings and all that.
Graves asks the assembled wizards “who does this law protect” and that seems to be the critical question. The wizarding world regard the law as their protection against the mass of non-magical humans, the assumption being that a united effort from regular humanity could spell the end of Wizards. But Graves is absolutely right to question this assumption, because the victims of all the loose magical problems are muggles, whose ignorance is literally fatal. And the environment that the wizards have created for themselves is not exactly a utopian ideal of freedom and justice. From the hints dropped during visits to the USA Magical Congress administration, it is a highly bureaucratic and highly controlled world – it is set during Prohibition, after all. Most troubling is their “justice” system, which proves, if anything, more brutal than the frankly dystopian nightmare you see in England. Upon a slight investigation, Graves determines that Newt and Tina are to be put to death, and sentence is immediately carried out, without question – the due process is the decision of an all-powerful bureaucrat.
The wizarding world on display here is absolutely terrifying, not least because it seems wholly unaware of any of these problematic currents. It is cruel and arbitrary, without an iota of kindness or many checks and balances. In this reading, it’s really hard not to place Graves as essentially in the right in the way he challenges the President and her men during the final scenes. Slaughtering Credence and wiping the world’s memories without any hesitation or reflection is a brutal enforcement of the regime’s power, and for all that Graves certainly has dark motives, he is right to question that. If the film is perfectly timed, reviewers like Ide seem to have read its message in completely the wrong way, as it’s not an example of hope, it’s an example of fear. (Ide’s is a particularly good example of missing the point, as she doesn’t even manage to identify what the plot of the film is).
So much for the A-plot, the basic spine of injustice brutally enforced by an oblivious regime that can only see as far as its own empowerment, what about these “magical beasts”, and where we find them. Newt Scamander has collected a range of magical beasts and brought them illegally into the USA with the intention of returning one of them to its native environment. He has good intentions about people too, objecting to the strict separation of wizards and muggles, and is clearly pained at the prospect of wiping his friend Kowalski’s memory. He alone seems to advocate for justice, such as the restoration of Tina to her position as a magical secret policeman. He is clearly a man out of place and ultimately unable to single-handedly re-orient the American wizards to something less fearful and xenophobic. Yet… what is his menagerie, really?
Scamander argues that his intent is to use his menagerie to show other wizards how beautiful and harmonious other creatures can be, to prevent their annihilation by mankind. But the menagerie itself is precisely a prison for magical creatures, who are categorically only harmless and harmonious when confined to their extra-dimensional prison – doesn’t that rather remind you of the larger-scale problem of the ultimate magical beasts, wizards, confined to their own secret world with its zero-tolerance policy to any kind of infraction? The beasts he allows out of his menagerie are those completely under his control. Scamander has benevolent intentions that can only be realised through the strictest of control regimes and circumstances. If his menagerie is meant to represent a naturalistic utopia, instead it is merely the most gilded of cages.
Essentially, as with all of the Harry Potter hilarity, the underlying political structures are almost unbelievably bleak and brutal. They get away with it by having beautiful and charming people put their best face on it, for which reason a heap of reviews praise Eddie Redmayne’s very humane and charming performance. But this is all glitz, and below that is the iron of a cage and the barbed cat’o’nine’tails. I would have given this film 4 or 5 stars if it seemed fully aware of its darker aspects, and if it had embraced where that trend was going instead of trying to play the film too young. A 15-certificate Potterverse film probably sounds like the most bizarre idea in the world, but that film could have been a 5-star classic instead of an apparent mess that carefully avoids looking at the difficult ideas it raises and steadfastly downplays the darkness inherent in its world.