Not Too Fantastic

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the 10th movie set in the Harry Potter universe that J.K. Rowling created 21 years ago. Rowling’s popularity shows no signs of abating now that the generation of kids who grew up with her books and movies are old enough to have kids of their own. She has streamlined the process—each successive movie’s script now gets published as a book. To judge by the vast wealth these stories have amassed, they are as dear to our hearts as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The movies seem to be getting streamlined, too, which is to say that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is disappointing. It is less a movie than an episode in a series. Not a television episode in a television series, though, since those things had to wrap up a story at least at an emotional level. You got closure, as people say.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which follows upon 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is an episode in a computer game—the middle act. It continues with the lead characters of the 2016 movie (played by the same actors, Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston)  but it doesn’t bother with much of a plot, since it’s only setting up the next movie in the series.

The story is simple to a fault. Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), revealed at the end of the previous movie as the great villain of the 1920s, is looking for an angry boy with remarkable magical powers while preparing to attack the world with his magical legions, which he is gathering with utmost ease. He wants to overpower not only other wizards, but the world, and impose magical fascism. Just like always, the charming, friendly Harry Potter universe is on the point of descending into Hitlerian darkness.

Older Protagonists for an Older Audience Cohort

As though acknowledging the coming of age of her original audience, Rowling has turned to adult protagonists in the “Fantastic Beasts” series. The good guys, led by the painfully awkward Newt (Redmayne), are supposed to stop Grindelwald and they seem to have ample time to do so. Of course, in the interests of keeping the series going, two hours and 13 minutes proves insufficient to get the job done.

Audiences have felt this is a weak story; box office receipts are down from the previous installment. But in another sense, it’s ever more purely Rowling, being significantly more attractive to women than men, with the limits to growth that that implies. Almost 60 percent of the audience was women; almost 70 percent was over 25. You might be surprised that these movies are not primarily for kids or teenagers, but it is more surprising still to see what view of adulthood prompts Rowling’s writing these days.

She has the good guys forever quarreling among themselves, unable to show much loyalty or put aside their differences. This is the first glimpse of adulthood. In the Harry Potter stories of old, the kids had far more unity when they were mostly pitted against the grown-ups. The new heroes are grown-ups, so they embody the weaknesses previous stories were rebelling against. Love and friendship are far less prominent now and there’s no comradeship or sense of shared adventure.

While Depp does a good job as a vaguely menacing madman, we unfortunately see little of him. He seems to be acting on a leash—the movie’s special effects crowd him out. Jude Law, playing a young Albus Dumbledore, is as wonderful (and underused) as Depp. He’s not crowded out by special effects but merely by lack of material. You expect big dramatic statements and imposing cinematic tricks; you get disappointment instead. If looking at these characters makes you swoon, you’re in for a treat, since they’re dapper, confident, and bristle with the things that make us curious. But whenever the musical cues and camera movement announce the imminence of something morally impressive, the moment fizzes out, and our attention is wrested back to the movie’s anxious, restless protagonists.

Emotionally, we get much the same Rowling cant as before: therapeutic language about how monsters are really misunderstood people. In the element of the fantastic, beasts turn into wonderful friends. It’s always the lament of inclusiveness: We didn’t listen! Kindness would have made it all better! Sure, it makes a mockery of human suffering, but people feel good when they hear this stuff, since the audience comprises people who feel misunderstood and wish that somewhere in their younger years something would have gone differently—that fate would have stepped in or an enchanted “sorting hat” have recognized them as special.

Rowling’s Version of Milo Yiannopoulos

But here’s the novel nuisance: The albino fascist Depp mimics the tropes of the white nationalist alt-Right that’s been obsessing the media in recent years. He makes much of not hating the non-magical majority, saying that they are just different, not worse. And then, of course, in private he calls them beasts of burden. This political touch is unlikely to persuade audiences, but it reveals how liberal ideology infects storytelling.

The infection goes deeper than rhetoric. Consider the setting, the 1920s. The expensive costume drama aspect is simply the dessert the female audience craves. But thematically, a bitter verdict is passed on the vaguely aristocratic charms of the era. That bitterness is expressed through the progressive politics of inclusion, where therapy is meant to heal all trauma with well-meaning slogans. Sure it was glamorous in the Jazz Age, but they were all bigots, the social inequalities of the time led to war, and so on.

How is it everything made to resolve itself into progressive crusading for social justice? It’s a four-step process. 1. Something admirable or at least gaudy from the past attracts attention as a matter of fashion, so it’s a good setting for a story. 2. Then for plot purposes you have to identify a conflict within that setting, to make things interesting. 3. You fail to understand the times. 4. Therefore, you recur to the progressive teaching that history is a class struggle between the Oppressors and the Oppressed.

Thus is every beautiful thing desiccated.

We should not blame Rowling or David Yates (directing his sixth Harry Potter-related movie). Alexis de Tocqueville said that in democratic times, poetry just doesn’t have much to go on anymore. People involve themselves in their own private lives and see above themselves massive abstractions like society or mankind. In between the personal or particular and the abstract universals, where history lies, there is a great void. We try to fill it with fantasies; we necessarily fail.

Harry Potter stories worked inasmuch as they appealed to the understandable experience of childhood turning into adolescence. Everyone goes through that and now it is of great public interest instead of being private, because we are continuously obsessed with our children—that they be creative, but also accepted as they are, but also successful, and, of course, always morally innocent, unaware of evil, untainted by sin. Moral conformism goes hand in glove with a desire for distinction. The more we affirm sameness, the more desperately we search for fantastic distinctness. Our fantasies naturally spring from those desires and fears.

Moral Superiority Complex

But turning to adulthood was never going to be a very fruitful exercise for Rowling, who has no more idea about adulthood than the rest of society. Her blunder was failing to notice that far more adults like her novels than children. This is not necessarily because children have better taste. It’s because adults are obsessed with childhood. Turn, instead, to adult things like the collapse of democracy and the rise of the worst tyrannies mankind has yet known—and it won’t do to keep intoning the charmed slogans of prayerful helicopter parenting and therapeutic liberalism that assuage our perpetual adolescence.

Nor will it suffice to rehash the paranoia of the “Trump Is Hitler” crowd. Rowling seems to not see in the past anything but the mad slogans of the present. It’s an impulse that produces neither worthwhile storytelling, nor, as it turns out, compelling entertainment. If she were to study history without assuming the superiority of her own prejudices, she would stand a better chance of coming up with a good yarn.

J.K. Rowling gets two things right out of three. True, we cannot deal with our apprehensions except through fantasy. True, we’re vaguely aware that liberal democracy is in danger, from some weakness inside ourselves. But no, it has nothing to do with Hitler. We need to go far back in the past, before modern liberalism arrived, to see something that would correspond to the challenge we dimly perceive but cannot grasp even in outline. Our popular fantasies, recurring always to images of aristocracy, announce a serious drama playing out in our souls. We have no stories as yet to give us a good image.