A review of the new Fantastic Beasts movie including a consideration of the wider world of Harry Potter (and my life throughout)
I can say honestly and openly that I was overwhelmed and bewildered by the latest production of the new Fantastic Beasts series (described as a spin-off to the Harry Potter books but which to devoted fans is much more than this, for whom the new stories are a back-extended, wonderfully recognisable corner of the beguiling creation of J.K. Rowling). And this is not necessarily to say that this was a bad thing. Fans be fans. But not enough to overlook the casting of Johnny Depp in it either. I remain gravely dismayed at that.
The wider world of Harry Potter and my life throughout
I’m personally far from being a cinema buff, in that I only attend bi-annually at most, but I certainly am a Harry Potter fan. (I have borrowed references from the books at least once elsewhere on this blog). I was past the age the books were intended for when they first came out (about 18), but my youngest brother Aaron was about eleven when my mother heard them being reviewed on the radio, and began to buy them for him. (I can point out right away that just like Dumbledore’s parents, my parents gave all their children names starting with A.) My sister Alicia and I would read over his shoulder and argue over who got to read them first when he was finished with them. Until the fourth book, when we all just started buying our own sets. The books have a rare and marvelous appeal to children and adults alike, and I found many adult friends who were just as appreciative as me! (It was well-known that at 23, my friend and I had matching Harry Potter bedspreads in our flat in Ballsbridge.) (My son has mine now).
I was 28 and pregnant with my first child (Aoife, now nearly eleven herself) when the last book was published. I queued up to buy it at midnight with my sister at Hodges Figges (which sounds like a Harry Potter name in itself, I always thought) bookshop in Dublin. Four years later (2011), I watched Harry Potter & the Deathy Hallows Part 2, the final movie, at an almost empty matinée showing at the Savoy cinema in Dublin, with my new small baby son (Beineán) sleeping and breastfeeding in my arms.
The last movie is my favourite. Though I did not love the movies, I deeply appreciated that so many people had taken the time and creativity and enormous expense to make them; they could never be the endlessly intricate delights that the books are. I of course appreciate that the people who created them are Harry Potter fans too, and that it’s very hard to transpose book magic to big screen. We – me and Aoife and Beineán, who are now themselves great Harry Potter fans – keep replenishing our DVD collection of them each time one of them wears out, and no matter how recently we’ve watched them we still get excited when they come on the TV. And much like my siblings and I read the books over each other shoulders, today (literally today, as I only got it out of the library yesterday), we are taking turns to read the screenplay of the stage-production-only story of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Aoife is pages ahead of me and we’re bursting to talk about what happens).
“It’s fun to have a hobby!” I admonish my partner Colm, who presents me with a withering expression when he walks in to the kitchen to hear the family tree of a wizarding world character being discussed at length over our favourite Harry Potter podcast. He’s not a fan; whenever he joins us on our long car journeys between Wexford and Galway, he doesn’t tolerate hearing the copious audiobook CDs fabulously read by Stephen Fry (renewed again and again from Enniscorthy Library because they are days long)
He did, however, deign to read the first book in its entirety in the burgeoning days of our relationship. Just for me #sigh (I have yet to read his recommended book as promised in return. This was 16 years ago). (Does that make me a bad girlfriend?)
He even indulged us by finding out his Hogwarts House. He’s Ravenclaw, like me! Aoife and Beineán are Hufflepuff. It will be some years before we find out what house our third child, Saoirse, belongs to: she is only one year old. (You can register to the Pottermore website to find out yours).
I was newly pregnant with Saoirse in 2016 when we all went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them in Wexford. I was excited to find a new outlet for our Harry Potter love, and I’d seen that the trailers looked beautiful. I was not expecting to be so completely bowled over all over again! Rather than a semi-decent transposition of book to movie, as I felt the books had been, because this movie had been written by JK Rowling directly for the screen I felt it worked a million times better than the Harry Potter movies had ever done.
And there were new and fabulous new characters, all relatable in terms of the books. Including the beasts themselves, and the best one of all – a muggle! *(non-magic person). There were cute nifflers and bo-truckles and stunning chrome baby dragons. The story was intriguing – how unexpressed magic can fester and fatally impact the individual as an obscurial (I love so much the linguistics of the JK Rowling’s world). The costumes were to die for and I adored the stunning 1920’s interiors and streetscapes. Even Colm half-shrugged his shoulders and agreed that he’d enjoyed it as we left the cinema that time. I handflapped about the aesthetic of it all for days and weeks after, and for my next birthday Colm bought me a beautiful leather-bound notebook with my initials inscribed on it as a nod to the delightful old-fashioned and magical chattels of Newt, the main character.
Needless to say we – Aoife and Beineán and I – had been literally counting down to Fantastic Beasts 2 – The Crimes of Grindelwald. It’s certified 12A, and I know there is always the risk of dark and threatening aspects to the stories, but given that my kids are such devoted fans to the books and movies so far, I knew I couldn’t give much consideration to not bringing them.
Wise Colm did, though.
“Are you sure about bringing him?” he said, nodding in the direction of Beineán, whom I was gently reminding about the scary aspects of the stories.
“I’m nearly eight, mammy!” Beineán remonstrated. “There’s no WAY I’m not going.”
In fairness, hed been listening to the podcast predictions for the movie in the car to school for the previous two weeks and I’d built this up so much for us all, it would have been pretty hard to leave him behind.
My brother Alan phoned during the days leading up to the movie’s release to say he’d come to Wexford to Galway to visit us the day it was being released.
“I’ve pre-booked a family ticket! You have to come with us!” I squealed.
This brother is more in alignment with Colm in terms of how he views the JK Rowling series; not much (no) interest, though he did enjoy the first Fantastic Beasts movie, and unlike me, he’s a movie buff. He was happy to get caught up in my excitement of it too.
“That’s why I’m gonna come down on Friday,” he agreed. “I’ll be down in time for it.”
And he was. Colm was left at home to mind Saoirse. Alan and me picked up the kids from school and we rocked into Wexford’s new arthouse cinema, The Ark, which wasn’t there when the first Fantastic Beasts movie was out (well, it was, but it was still an old closed down disused cinema at that time), in time for the first showing.
I was stoked to see other committed fans there; a little girl dressed head-to-toe in her Slytherin gear, and someone cuddling a Niffler teddy! A young couple wearing Harry Potter t-shirts and jackets and – yes – brandishing a wand out of a special case. LOOOK Alan! I gestured, and he raised an eyebrow in semi-amusement, more at me than them. I tried to make conversation across the enormous luxuriant seats, but I think they were a bit startled at this freak who talks to strangers (and I not the one who brings a wand to the cinema) (I do own one, in case you’re wondering: specially crafted since, by Alan and Aoife and Beineán, inspired by our shy friends across the cinema aisle.)
We were in our seats so early that our drinks and popcorn was all consumed before the lights finally went down.
Reviewing Fantastic Beasts 2: the Crimes of Grindelwald
And, well: Alan fell asleep. (So, though yes he was tired and had been driving all day, I guess this movie isn’t going to be a pleaser for the cinema-goer who is not a die-hard Harry Potter fan). I spent the time whispering frantically with Aoife as we both tried to keep up with what was happening, in between comforting Beineán, who was so traumatised that he curled up in his seat and turned away from the screen.
There is horror in the movie, yes, and not to divulge too many spoilers here (I might do that in a separate blog post), it was particularly close to the bone for us because it involves babies, with violence redolent of the attack on Harry when he was a baby, except even worse, because, well, as we know, Harry survived, and obviously all we could think of was our baby at home. Despite the shockingly convincing portrayal, I was able to convince Beineán of a possible alternative outcome to what we saw (maybe the baby survived, maybe he comes back in the next movie). Thus I find that yes, the movie was not suitable for Beineán at all. In fact, it at times didn’t feel suitable for me, the grown adult, either, as this scene left me sickened to my core myself.
It seems we are supposed to be shown just how evil the title character and his henchwoman are supposed to be. And my fun, escapist hobby begins to feel way too disturbing and real. (Do we have to?)
In fact, in this latest movie there were so many ambiguities throughout all of the complicated storylines, almost like those old Choose Your Own Adventures books, we were left at the end of the movie to follow a variety of our own envisioned trajectories, almost no better off to where we were in the story than before we went in. And there wasn’t enough magic in this one. Not enough opportunities to mutter the spells we know so well before the characters even open their mouths. Stupefy! Lumos! Expelliarmus!
I did take away with me the beauty of the costumes, I loved the French Ministry of Magic, I loved Newt’s House, and the house that Grindelwald takes in Paris is beautifully imagined. There were funny moments, if not as much as the first movie. There were endearing moments. Nicolas Flammel makes a wondrous appearance, Jacob is a delight again, and the relationship between Nagini and Credence based on their mutual vulnerability is convincing and beautiful. Where will it go from here?
There was a quite an arresting moment where Leta Lestrange shows us her family tree, which names only the men whilst the women are symbolised as beautiful flowers.
As I intimated above, I came away fairly overwhelmed and bewildered (among many other twists and turns (SPOILER ALERT. Sorry!): somehow, Professor McGonagle appears, as a teacher in the school in the 1910s; long before she’s supposed to be. I had reckoned: timeturner! and thought I was so clever, but was assured by another fan that timeturners can only go back for up to five hours at a time). (So now you know.) I can say that I was none-too-impressed by the lauded big twist in the end, though it does inspire some interesting theorising which I can’t fully explain in relation to the Harry Potter books. Unless the mysteries that Dumbledore knowingly carried to his grave were even greater than revealed.
I have to say, I don’t mind being unimpressed and even confused with this. I’m totally up for the clarifications that are to come in future revelations.
The casting of Johnny Depp
I do mind that I did made the choice to attend the movie in spite of a boycott of the movie by other fans and cinema-goers due to the disagreeable casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald. Other people had not heard about this at all, or have any idea why people would criticise Johnny Depp. It came as a surprise to some people this week when I told them that Johnny Depp had hit his wife.
I did struggle with his presence in the first movie, though I knew it was well in production when the photos of what he did to his wife emerged, and his appearance in that installment was less-than minimal then. For this second movie, as much as we were invested in it, I did go with a bad taste already in my mouth that he would feature much more significantly – indeed as the title character.
And so I rather wish that Warner Brothers would quietly give Johnny Depp his marching orders now; not least because his performance in this movie is less-than-moving. He doesn’t inspire me at all as the charismatic dude of Dumbledore’s affections, as per the original Harry Potter books (part of the joy of the Fantastic Beasts movies is how they tie in with the Harry Potter story). Almost any other good actor out there could have been given the same mad-hair treatment and funny eye.
And still can.
Not only did Johnny Depp not attempt to redeem himself or show ANY remorse for what he did to his wife, he had his lawyers claim that she was gold-digging. Amber Heard said that she had “ endured excessive emotional, verbal and physical abuse from Johnny, which has included angry, hostile, humiliating and threatening assaults to me whenever I questioned his authority or disagreed with him.”
A video she recorded of Johnny Depp stomping around their kitchen shows disturbing insight to this. The photos of her bruised face are shocking.
In response, J.K. Rowling defended him: she seems to be saying that she’s taken her lead from Amber Heard, his now-ex-wife, who has said she wants them – she and Johnny – to get on with their lives now. I rather wish J.K. Rowling hadn’t gone that extra mile to say that she and Warner Brothers were “genuinely happy” to have Johnny Depp in the movie.
Many of her fans are not happy.
I am not happy.
And, worse than having to comfort my son about the violence in this movie, which though disturbing, is after all, fictional, and portrayed, naturally, as repugnant: I’m going to have to talk with my kids about my misgivings; worse, because this isn’t fiction.
This is real world.
And, disturbingly, this is Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling excusing repugnant, violent behaviour – because, Johnny Depp?
I don’t mind who he is. He hit his wife.
This real-world problem regarding the making of the movie weighs in heavily on the movie itself, because – and I did go to the cinema to see how this would play out – I wasn’t able to unsee the disturbing video of Johnny Depp in his kitchen intimidating his wife, and the questionable yet convincing charisma of Gellert Grindelwald remains confined for me to the black and white print of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows.
I feel like I have enough to do with keeping up with the Wizarding World canon besides this effort of indulging this casting, who seems to be making zero effort to redeem himself to anyone, save for badmouthing the woman he hit. It’s fairly basic to expect zero tolerance for that.
There are three more movies to go, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that someone else gets to bring Grindelwald to life.
Whose character is a complex one. We hear tell of him as an idealistic and deeply flawed teenager in the Harry Potter books, who made an enormous impression on Albus Dumbledore, later to be Headmaster of Hogwarts. Dumbledore himself has his deep flaws, which he goes on to learn from, the hard way, to become that wise and worldly old wizard we know so well.
Unlike Grindelwald, whom we know remained on his dubious path but does on to convince people to follow him – how, I still don’t know. Because Grindelwald in this movie wasn’t convincing me of anything.
Will I watch this movie again? Yes, in tune to a narrative in my head where Johnny Depp respectfully resigns his role, or where Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling respectfully let him go, and my kids might get to see that big movie corporations do listen to their paying public, that JK Rowling really truly does value her devoted fanbase even in their misgivings, and that together they don’t support staff who behave violently towards anyone.
Perhaps Warner Brothers and J.K. Rowling will remember that “it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
A wise and worldly old wizard said that.