Ignorance is a very important part of how people experience the world; one might even go so far as to call it a fundamental human value. We constantly rely on our ability to block out thoughts that distract us from the pertinent matters in our lives and that keep us from processing the situations we face in a way that makes sense to us. There is no way for a middle-class citizen of the western world to be happy, healthy, prosperous, and content while regularly considering the unsung realities of nearly every aspect of human life: free will is illusory, life is quickly coming to an end, most of us will be forgotten by history, we all spend our money on things we desire while those who need our money starve, we unconsciously harbor many unethical biases, and so on and so forth. In cinema, ignorance is perhaps the most important value, because the average Hollywood movie is only enjoyable if it can trick the audience into focusing only on an ignorant form of empathy (the kind that psychologists like Paul Bloom find harmful when applied to reality) so that they can be as engrossed in the story as possible. Fantastic Beasts completely fails at keeping the viewer, or at least me, blissfully ignorant, instead leaving me questioning and challenging some of the most important premises of the narrative and making me painfully confused.
Regrettably, I found myself completely forgetting most of what I saw in this movie shortly after I left the theater, so it is very difficult for me to recall specific examples of my complaints about the film, but I know that my main problem overall while watching it was that I didn’t know how I was supposed to think or feel about anything that happened. By the time I’d made it about a third of the way through, I had been wishing that I had read the novel, but I was informed by my sister that the book Rowling wrote with the same title as this film is not a novel, so I have no idea how anyone is expected to read this movie. The plot’s problem on a large scale is that the context makes so little sense: why the heck should I believe that the only result of muggles finding out about the wizard world is their annihilation, and how can I do this without being frustrated with the wizarding community? The only reason why the wizards would feel the need to kill all the non-wizards is if they were concerned that the non-wizards would be outraged that the wizards had kept their magic to themselves, in which case the non-wizards would be absolutely right – the wizarding community has been unethically ignoring the needs of those in poverty, in war, and in every horrible event that has occurred in human history, simply for their own convenience. Rowling’s inability to keep me ignorant of this fact is detrimental to the story, and ultimately, I thought the villain proposed better policies than the president (who was an unreasonable jerk in her last scene). This left me unsettled by the way that Newt took her side and went along with the nonsense that he knew from his experience with Queenie and Kowalski was needlessly causing pain.
The characters, too, are somewhat problematic. I think the film might have been more interesting had it been about Tina, whose role seemed to be more focused than Newt’s, but her part is fine as it is. The villain’s role in the film seemed odd to me, in part because it felt like Johnny Depp was wasted, and in part because it felt like they were trying to pull a twist ending, which couldn’t have possibly worked after the cinematographer so blatantly revealed who the villain was at the beginning of the film, making the only twist at the climax the awkward revelation of a funny-looking Johnny Depp. The kids in the cult also seemed to have their story handled clumsily: at first I suspected the child who turned into the black Tasmanian Devil watercolor thing was Ezra Miller’s character, but then the movie informed us that this couldn’t be true because you have to be younger than him to turn into the flying scribble monster, but then the movie inexplicably nullify’s its own premise, which is absolutely terrible storytelling. It’s a little bit strange to see just how much Newt and Tina seem to like each other on a romantic level seeing as how she looks much older than him, but this, too, is forgivable. I’ll even give Newt’s habit of mumbling unintelligibly a pass, because ultimately, my real problem in the film is with Queenie and Kowalski.
Queenie is essentially a magical Marilyn Monroe – hyper-sexualized, yet ultimately innocent, and generally content with the way men throw themselves at her – which is odd coming from a feminist storyteller like Rowling. As a little bit of a storyteller myself, I know from experience that adding a mind-reader to the story can cause problems, especially in a romance: she’s essentially stripping him down on a psychological level, violating the most sacred form of privacy known to humankind, and it’s all shrugged off by the other characters as a little quirk. The inclusion of this character also has serious consequences for the logic of the Potter universe, meaning I have questions about how a mind-reader can be fairly graded on his/her Hogwarts exams, or why it is that dark wizards don’t use mind-readers to extract information from (and blackmail) their enemies. To make matters worse, the believability of the story suffers from the fact that this beautiful woman is randomly in love with a chubby baker, and as much as she says that he’s an amazing person, we aren’t given any reason to believe this. Everything amazing about him must be in his brain, and she’s the only one who can access that, leaving the romance they shared ultimately off-screen on a purely psychological level, thus completely distancing the audience from their romantic experience. The other problem with their relationship, of course, is the ending: she is forced to say goodbye and make him forget her, then waits a few months for some reason, and then inexplicably shows up in his life again, presumably assuming she’ll be able to have a romantic relationship with him while hiding the fact that she knows everything about his past and his psychology, which has got to be the clunkiest ending to a romantic story I have ever witnessed.
I think what bothers me most about this film is that it could have been something very special – maybe the best Potter film to date – but instead it’s as annoying as Prisoner of Azkaban. In terms of setting, it could obviously be an enormous amount of fun to see what wizards would do in the Roaring Twenties – the Jazz Age – but the closest we get to the kind of whimsy that should have filled the film is the weird CG singer in the speakeasy that felt like a leftover from the Special Edition edits of Jabba the Hutt’s den in Return of the Jedi. I think this could have been a fascinating drama about conflicts in the wizard community because of the laws concerning no-maj relations, or it could have been a neat story about a revolt against the wizarding establishment. As it is, however, it’s just a weird story about an uninteresting smuggler of wild animals who wants to release a magical bird in Arizona. I don’t understand it, and I’m not crazy about it, but I can’t say it’s not entertaining. It’s a fine popcorn flick for anyone interested in seeing some of the weird monsters and critters Rowling’s made up for the Potter universe in an original story with a generally good cast. It’s just not exactly … fantastic.