fantastic beasts the crimes of grindelwald trailer breakdown

Not So ‘Fantastic’ Returns

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, now on Blu-ray and home video, has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes ratings of any Harry Potter film yet. But it wasn’t just that it was a bad movie – it took a long time for the Harry Potter series to lose the love and goodwill that once made it one of the biggest franchises in the world.

When Pottermore first launched in 2011, it was met with overwhelming excitement from fans, including yours truly. Conceived as a website that would act as both fan community and Harry Potter encyclopedia made of text and trivia penned by J.K. Rowling herself, Pottermore was supposed to be the one-stop shop for all things Harry Poter. I was one of those beta testers who quickly joined and made my way through the online experience of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and eagerly anticipated the creation of an online community for Harry Potter fans, and Harry Potter fans only.

College and work ended up pulling me away from the website, but when I revisited the website a few years later, I found it had become a different beast. The digital walkthroughs of each of the Harry Potter books were scrapped — though the interactive Sorting Ceremony remains a big hit — and the fan community was virtually non-existent, the site now becoming a tool for Rowling to create new lore that would build anticipation for a new spin-off film franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

This was, as they say, when things started to go downhill. Fantastic Beasts was coming into existence in a different world than the one in which Rowling had first introduced Harry Potter: one where a globalized, diverse world was expected of a franchise that had rightfully taught so many kids that Nazis were bad. But Rowling has proven wholly incapable of building up this new world, instead choosing to revise characters into more progressive versions of what they were. Albus Dumbledore? Gay now. Jewish wizards? Totally a thing. And American wizards? Apparently they had the worse nicknames for Muggles. Many of these revelations came in the form of posts from Rowling’s Twitter, but most came from that Pottermore, once a beloved fan-centric community, now the digital equivalent of a corporate shill.

Rowling found herself in hot water particularly when she published Pottermore entries describing the history of Native American wizards, but that’s not where the errors with her world-building strategy begins. The problem is attempting to add serious structure to a world that was fanciful to begin with. As bright and vibrant as that magical world we first encountered in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was, many of the details don’t withstand scrutiny. Unlike Tolkien, who wrote Lord of the Rings with the express purpose of building a world that came with centuries of history, culture, and lore, Harry Potter seemingly sprang out of Rowling’s mind — like those fantasies that we dreamed of as children. It was Rowling’s sparkling prose that brought that world to life, but with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter increasingly moving beyond the books into the big screen and the stage, that magic is lost.

The first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them almost succeeded in capturing that childlike wonder of early Harry Potter, with the first half following Newt Scamander and his titular beasts on a romp through New York City. But like the Wizarding universe now, it was a film stuck between two worlds, and ended up bending to the dark, serious world-building of the latter with The Crimes of Grindelwald. The second film in the spin-off series spends so much time focusing on that world-building — frequently forgetting the canon established just a few years ago (MACUSA is referred to as “the American Ministry of Magic”?) — that the characters, once the most richest and most compelling parts of any Harry Potter story, became unlikable ciphers. And even those inspiring themes of friendship, love, and acceptance that are characteristic of the franchise got garbled by The Crimes of Grindelwald, which turned one of its few Jewish characters into a pseudo-Nazi. It’s a long way from the Harry Potter we all fell in love with.

Not a Child, Not Yet a Wizard, Harry

In November last year, I hesitantly went to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway, the infamous Harry Potter sequel stage play that has been (rightfully) compared to a piece of fan fiction. To my surprise, I loved it.  The play, written by Jack Thorne based on a story by Thorne, John Tiffany, and Rowling, takes place 19 years after the events of Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows and follows the early school years of Harry’s younger son Albus Severus Potter, who has become the black sheep son to his famous, beloved father. Convinced that he can earn his father’s love by going back in time to save Cedric Diggory from being killed by Voldemort, Albus ends up creating horrific alternate timelines and unveiling a greater plot to bring the Dark Lord back to life.

Like many Harry Potter fans, I eagerly bought the book edition of the play’s script when it was published in 2016, but was majorly disappointed by the play’s weak approximation of a Harry Potter story. A secret child by Voldemort? Cedric Diggory being a pivotal player in the Wizarding War? Harry being a bad father? It was like something that had been cranked out on fanfiction.net in 2004, but here The Cursed Child was, with Rowling’s name attached. The problem was easy to see — without Rowling’s vibrant writing to flesh out the world, The Cursed Child only highlighted how ridiculous the Harry Potter plots could be. But could a stage play achieve where the script failed?

Yes, and more. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is a wonder to behold on stage — the characters were so much richer and compelling when given life by Laurence Oliver Award-winning actors Jamie Parker, Paul Thornley, Noma Dumezweni, and Anthony Boyle; and the jaw-dropping effects were the closest thing to experiencing real magic I’ve seen. The plot twists were still a little ridiculous, but it reminded me of why I fell in love with Harry Potter in the first place: the beautifully rendered characters and that sense of childlike awe and enchantment.

Even that sense of “fanfiction” isn’t something to sneer at in the realm of Harry Potter — some of the best creations and interpretations of the world come from fans, who kept Harry Potter alive and vibrant for so long, despite Warner Bros.’ notoriously strict crackdown policy on fan creations. It’s the reason why the hilarious A Very Potter Musical (Hey, Darren Criss!) has such a following, despite being a low-brow satire of the series, and why fansites were involved in the creation of Pottermore in the first place. The fandom understand and love the spirit of Harry Potter, despite all its drawbacks.

So what is the true “essence” of Harry Potter? Is it the childlike whimsy of its earlier books? Is it the sprawling and ambitious world-building of today’s films? Or is it something in between? Perhaps the lore rests in the hands of the fans. Or perhaps it rests in the feeling that Harry Potter gives us, whether we’re experiencing something magical through a stage play or a theme park. It’s why we’ll always keep going back to Hogwarts.

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