Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fantastic Beasts: Unresolved Themes

Theatrical Poster
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is one part light-hearted animal antics and one part wizarding Acura. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the dark tone of the movie took me by surprise. Despite the PG-13 rating, I was expecting a kid's movie more in line with the early Harry Potter films than Stranger Things.

SPOILERS

Newt Scamander has traveled from England to New York carrying a case of magical creatures. When some of them get loose, Newt and his new no-maj (muggle) friend Jacob run around New York trying to catch them.

However, there is another creature in New York. A young boy named Credence has suppressed his magic in an effort to avoid persecution by his family—religious fanatics dedicated to exposing and presumably killing witches—and has created a destructive swirl of smoke and lightning that will feed off of him until it kills them both.

This creature is called an Obscurial and its host, who rarely lives beyond the age of ten, is an Obscurious. (This distinction isn’t really explained in the film, and both terms are thrown about.)

There are three powers at play in this film. First is Newt, who has encountered an Obscurious before and failed to save her. When he learns what is going on, he tries to save Credence. Percival Graves is an Auror, who is actually Grindelwald in disguise. He wants to use the destructive power of Credence’s Obscurial to spark a war with the no-majs. Finally, there is the Seraphina Picquery, President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America. The Magical Congress is concerned only with keeping the wizarding world a secret from the no-majs and thus avoiding war with them.

Themes

The themes in this film are difficult to nail down, particularly because the repeating elements which suggest a theme remain unresolved.

1. Prejudice

The theme of prejudice (motivated by race, gender, class, etc.) is explored in the original Harry Potter series, but in Fantastic Beasts the theme makes far less sense.

While the film includes an African American female president, the depiction of prejudices in 1920s America is all but absent. This results in a sensation of detachment—the story is tied to its setting by the timeline of events described in Harry Potter and is not driven or affected by the chosen time period.

The wizarding world is so far removed from the muggle/no-maj world that the conflicts of American history have passed them by. Their only prejudice is against non-wizards of any kind (muggles/no-majs, house elves, goblins, etc.).

Fantastic Beasts depicts their prejudice against no-majs in particular.

Early on Newt says that Americans have a backwards law that prevents them from marrying muggles. (Why such a law would exist in America when it does not in Britain does not make sense to me and necessitates some explanation, I think.) President Picquery and the rest of the wizards in government are extremely concerned with managing no-maj knowledge about wizards and thereby their interactions with them, even at the expense of their rights: repeatedly demonstrating severe disrespect for them.

Despite the repetition of this prejudice, the film offers no solutions or messages on the topic.

2. Obliviation

Another element that arose repeatedly was the topic of the obliviating witnesses.

Newt’s friendship with Jacob is by far the most interesting and entertaining one in the film, yet at the end the no-maj has to have his memories wiped. Even Jacob does not seem to question its necessity, and although his friends are all sad, no one questions the morality of forcing people to forget.

The law requires obliviating any no-maj who learns about their world—so much so that the entire city has their memories erased after the epic climax. This allows the wizarding community to take no responsibility for their actions or the events that have occurred, although the president claims it will help them avoid war.

Despite this repetition, there was no discussion introduced about the morality of erasing the memories of unwilling or unknowledgeable individuals. Forcing people to forget should be one of the Unforgivable Curses. It is easily as damaging and intrusive as the Imperius Curse, so why isn’t there more discussion about its morality?

Unlike the theme of prejudices, film makers do not even seem to recognize the problem of obliviation and there is no discussion.

Fantastic Beasts is slated to become a trilogy, so it is possible that these themes will be resolved in future films. For now, though, it results in unsettled issues, which weaken the film as a stand-alone experience.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed the movie, despite the surprisingly dark tone and unresolved themes. I hope that the rest of the trilogy works to answer some of the questions this film raised and that they are more grounded in the American setting.

Discussion Questions

Are memories important even if they cause conflict or pain? If everyone could forget an event, one in which people died, to avoid war, should they forget it (willingly or unwillingly)?

I think that a wizarding community in the US is an interesting idea, but one that was not well delivered in this particular film. What distinctly American concerns would a wizarding community like the one in Fantastic Beasts have?