How The Fantastic Beasts Franchise Stumbled

The Potterverse is unique in pop culture because it is stridently controlled by one person: its creator JK Rowling. She has a level of creative power over every aspect of the IP — the books, movies, theme park attractions, and so on — that really doesn’t exist anywhere else in the 2020s. Consider how, for example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t exclusively created by Stan Lee and it’s not beholden to the specifications of one artistic figure. Every minute detail of the Harry Potter world comes from the mouth of Rowling and that’s inspired more than a few eye rolls, even from hardcore fans. Consider how Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay and suggested that he was in an intimate relationship with Grindelwald, while never explicitly referencing the character’s sexuality in the books. Her “red pen in the margins” approach to diversity in the original books also left a sour taste in some people’s mouths, a matter exacerbated by her messy and stereotype-ridden portrayals of Native American wizards in the Pottermore mythos. While there are obvious upsides to having such a hands-on creator, one who lavishes in the weird details that are oft-overlooked by others, it’s an approach that has seen Rowling fall prey to her worst artistic habits.

The “Fantastic Beasts” films fell prey to these instincts in the most overstuffed and tedious manner possible. It didn’t help that, as the sole credited screenwriter of the first two movies, Rowling was able to run rampant with these tics with nobody to temper them. It was also her first experience writing a film and it really shows in the structural flabbiness of the second film, which features a lot of scenes of people standing around and yelling key exposition at one another. What should have been a cute lark involving magical animals in New York City of the Jazz Age quickly became an overstuffed prequel to the original narrative, one that simply did not work in terms of timing or characterization.

It took no time at all for the fun and low-stakes silliness of Newt Scamander and his adorable creatures to be shoved aside in favor of a Dumbledore versus Grindelwald story. That would have been accepted by fans if the ensuing action had any kind of tonal or character cohesion. It didn’t. Rowling went into overdrive trying to draw direct parallels between Grindelwald’s evil plans and literal Nazis, thanks to the series’ setting lining up with the impending Second World War. The Potter franchise has always been less-than-subtle when it comes to its political allegory but in the context of a children’s series it made some sense. Now, it felt kind of gross but it also screwed with the slightest of characterizations we knew about these new figures in the story. Any emotional or political ambiguity that Dumbledore may have had went out the window, leaving poor Jude Law to rely on pure charm to pull through a sloppy script.

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