Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question:
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” just enjoyed $75 million opening weekend, and has been announced as the first installment of a five-part series. How would you like to see these movies continue to expand the Harry Potter universe?
Tasha Robinson (@tasharobinson), The Verge
Mostly, I want to see the series continue to grow up, and I don’t expect that it will, because the tension between making the series more mature and keeping it accessible for kid viewers is probably going to keep us in this weird in-between space, where even adult characters operating in a politically complicated world have to run around enabling slapstick humor and suggestively waving their asses at CGI animals. I’m enjoying the series’ flirtation with adulthood, after its protracted childhood and troubled adolescence in the Harry Potter books. The play “Harry Potter And The Cursed Child” takes an interesting step forward by having Harry deal with parenthood and the ways it interacts with his own traumatic history. “Fantastic Beasts” has characters negotiating bank loans, demotions at work, and the internal politics of a compromised and prejudicial wizarding system. And I’m on board for all of it — I’ve always wondered what the Potterverse would look like if it didn’t have to turn all its adults into incompetent blunderers just to set up Harry and his friends to save the day over and over. But I’d still like to get further away from the lumpy, overstretched pacing of “Fantastic Beasts.” The film sets up a really intriguing and adult story about an infiltrator manipulating an unbalanced system, an abuse victim trying to come to terms with his own identity, and a struggling do-gooder (that’s Tina) fighting back as best she can. And then it keeps diverging into what feels like empty spectacle and pointless distraction. Maybe I just want the series to pick one story to tell at a time, and to tell it well.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Nerdist/Pajiba
1. Ditch Depp. We’re established Grindelwald can change form, do it and save us all for the hackery that has become Johnny Depp’s brand.
2. Use the Grindelwald/wizard Hitler plot as the political allegory the UK and US need so badly right now. Sure, give us the glamor of Paris and the fun of fantastical beasts. But lean hard into the progressive politics these films have always dabbled in, make the case for rejecting fear of those who are “magical.” And make that case more profoundly and ethically by folding people of color into the main cast and including LGBTQA characters clearly.
No more tip toeing then back-patting, Rowling. Dumbledore’s gay. You’ve said it’s cannon. Make it clear. These movies — like the “Star Wars” ones — are basically guaranteed to succeed. Use that position of power to do good by actively promoting the representation you claim to be support. I’d argue it’s always the civic duty of artists to do so, but especially now.
Sean Hutchinson (@seanbhutchinson), Inverse
It’s not just the “Potter-verse“ anymore, it’s the Wizarding World, and that says a lot.
“Fantastic Beasts” was a great opening salvo to this spinoff series, a statement that focused on a semi-beloved Rowling character — Newt! — and a quasi-inconsequential problem — weird creatures run amok! — that shed light on the grander, more pressing issues that the series will face in the coming films. It was the same way with the Potter movies as well. The early ones set the stage while introducing a nascent threat that all the character would eventually have to confront, but until then they’ll get into some charming magical adventures.
Given the big reveal at the end, “Fantastic Beasts” seems like it will get dark in the same way the coming of Voldemort brought some seriousness to the early Potter film fluff. It seems like they’re headed in the direction of a wizard standoff that was only previously hinted at, which fans will surely love. Here’s hoping they don’t just forget about Newt Scamander.
Kate Erbland (@katerbland), IndieWire
If I have any major beef with “Fantastic Beasts” — and I don’t have many! I won’t apologize for delighting in the magic of being back in the Harry Potter universe! — it’s that, even for a film meant to lay out the groundwork for four subsequent films, the whole thing is way too heavy on plot. You’ve got plots and subplots and unanswered questions (many of which don’t feel so much like indicators of things to come, but actual plot holes) up the wazoo, and it does detract from the overall delight and excitement of the film. With five films at their disposal, the Beasts Think Tank (you know there is one) could stand to loosen up a bit and not front load so much information into its features, instead opting to explore a few less plots in service to story, character, and just plain old entertainment. (Also, please bring back Colin Farrell.)
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for the Verge, Rolling Stone, Vulture
How’s about we get an actual gay character onscreen instead of mealy-mouthed authorial rulings after the fact (Dumbledore only counts as a queer character if it’s actually in the books) or insultingly obvious metaphors (looking at you, Furious Destruction Cloud of Homoerotic Repression). I wanna see wizards smoochin’ wizards, witches bewitchin’ witches, maybe a bisexual centaur. Actually, now that we’re talking about it, I amend my answer: I would like to see these movies continue to expand the Harry Potter universe by becoming pornographic parodies. This shit writes itself — “Scamander? I barely know ‘er!” You’re welcome, and I will take my million dollars now.
Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire
“Fantastic Beasts” works best as an elegant period piece that deals with grand power clashes even as it maintains a light, playful air. Subsequent movies present similar opportunities. This one takes place on the brink of the market crash in the jazzy New York City of the roaring twenties; Rowling would be wise to position the second installment in the Depression, and keep the timeline going, leaving us in the midst of Vietnam by number five. Just think of the power of those fantastic beasts on the battlefield. If these movies can provide us with embellished history lessons in the midst of troubled times, they may help enlighten younger audiences confused about the state our divided world. I can’t think of a better justification for committing to such a ridiculous number of movies.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects
As much as I love a 1920s New York City setting, I’d like to see the other installments of “Fantastic Beasts” take us to other parts of the (wizarding) world. I’d also very much like to see other directors take on each sequel. Yates isn’t even a safe choice for this franchise anymore. His direction is not just bland in the first Fantastic Beasts but it’s also quite disorienting. Or, I guess he can stay if he remembers what he believed about his work more than a decade ago (from the Telegraph in 2005):
“I am very strategic about getting coverage (the amount of shots it takes to tell the story within a scene). Some directors believe in shooting everything from every conceivable angle, and then working the material in the cutting room. I believe where you put the camera for a scene, how you move the camera, what lens you use, and what is or isn’t in the frame with the actor, defines the story in that moment. Therefore for me, there is only one optimum place to ever put the camera if you are to achieve maximum impact for the story.”
Tomris Laffly (@TomiLaffly), Film Journal International and Film School Rejects
The phrase “cinematic universe” usually gives me an instant headache. But as a “Harry Potter” fan, I admit, I’m (cautiously) excited/optimistic about the upcoming “Fantastic Beasts” installments. I did love the first film that’s currently playing & as I noted in my review, found its subtle themes around acceptance & unity (and even immigration, to a degree) very timely and welcome. And it definitely helped that the film, from its impressive effects to swoon-worthy costumes, is a visual stunner.
But this expansion has a lot of work to do, in order to live up to/fit in the impeccably conceived Harry Potter universe. For starters, the adorably shy and reserved Newt Scamander needs to be enriched and deepened as a character, so he can sustain the upcoming chapters as a hero we can continue to care about.
But for now, sign me up — I trust J. K. Rowling & David Yates won’t let us down. I can’t wait to see how they continue to build Fantastic Beasts up, and bridge it to the world of Harry, Hermione & Ron. I can certainly use some magic in my life these days. We all can.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
Of all my gripes with “Fantastic Beats” (and there are many), the most pressing — and the most preventable — is that it offers a miserable sense of place. One of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed the “Harry Potter” films so much is that Hogwarts is alive; it has weight, it has history, you can reach out and touch it (or fly to a theme park and visit it). Say what you will about Christopher Columbus as a director, but those first two Potter installments laid the groundwork for the richest fantasy film world since “Star Wars,” and that foundation is what allowed the likes of Alfonso Cuarón and David Yates to work their magic. “Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t feel like it takes place in New York City circa the 1920s, it feels like it takes place in a server farm. Because the story is set in such an ugly, intangible, copied-and-pasted world, none of the characters feel as though they belong to anything (and it doesn’t help that most of those pesky beasts are eyesores, or that the villain is ultimately revealed to be yet another CG smoke monster). For this series to have any hope of sustaining four more films, it needs to create a world worth revisiting. Build sets! Put characters in them! Subtitle Newt Scamander! The rest will fall into place.
Neil Miller (@rejects), Film School Rejects
The notion that the Wizarding World will expand geographically is the most fascinating thing about “Fantastic Beasts.” There’s a scene in the movie that involves a wizard council from all over the world. What are the wizards of Asia like? How is magic (good and evil) part of the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany? These are questions this franchise now has the opportunity to answer. One of the franchise’s strengths is building out the fascinating world in which wizards and witches live (and how it bumps up against that of us Muggles), and with “Fantastic Beasts” it appears to want to reach much higher in the future.
Erin McCarthy (@erincmccarthy), Mental Floss
When it was first announced that FB was going to be five movies, people were wondering: Five movies of this guy chasing beasts?! How is that even going to work? But based on what this movie sets up, as well as details the producers have let slip about the sequel, it seems clear where this series is going: The end game is the epic showdown between Grindelwald and Dumbledore in 1945, where Dumbledore defeats his former friend and takes possession of the elder wand (more on this in a sec).
The promise of seeing that play out is pretty cool for Potter fans, but it does raise the question: Where do Newt, Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and all the beasts fit in? To my knowledge, Newt has never been mentioned in relation to Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s duel; I’ll be interested to see how the filmmakers integrate those characters into this story without somehow relegating them to the sidelines.
One lingering question I have from “Fantastic Beasts”: Late in the movie, Newt defeats Graves-as-Grindelwald, which made me wonder about what implications this had for the allegiance of the Elder Wand. If you believe wizarding legend, the wand was created by Death. It was said to be the most powerful wand ever created, and, along with the Resurrection Stone and the Invisibility Cloak, was one of three “Deathly Hallows.” (I could go on about it, but best to just watch this.) It was said that whoever had these three items would become the master of death, and it was uniting the Hallows that drew Grindelwald and Dumbledore together as young men. Anyway, long story short: Defeat the wizard who uses the Elder wand and the wand transfers its allegiance to you. This trick ultimately helped Harry beat Voldemort at the end of “Deathly Hallows”: Dumbledore was master of the Elder Wand after defeating Grindelwald in 1945; Draco disarmed Dumbledore that night on the astronomy tower; Harry disarmed Draco, who was using his own wand, at Malfoy Manor, thereby becoming master of the Elder Wand, even though Voldemort had physical possession of it.
The wand that Graves-as-Grindelwald uses in Fantastic Beasts is not the Elder Wand (and it’s not clear if Grindelwald even had it at this point, although the Potter movies showed him stealing it from wandmaker Gregorovitch as a young man), but it seems clear from the fact that Harry was able to become master of the wand by disarming Draco—who never had physical possession of the Elder Wand—that that’s not an issue. Assuming Grindelwald has the wand, is Newt now the master of the Elder Wand? Or is this not possible because Newt bested Grindelwald using a beast (Sweeping Death) rather than magic? Please answer these questions, J.K. Rowling!!!