WARNING: This post contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Proceed with caution.
People love the Harry Potter films. I get it. The books captured the imaginations of a generation of young people, tempting them away from the nascent lure of screens and technology, and encouraging them to pick up a bona fide series of page-turners. The world rejoiced that a new generation was embracing the power of the written word in printed-and-bound book form. Young people globally fell in love with J.K. Rowling’s immersive Wizarding World. Swiftly followed by grown-ups, who rediscovered the joy of reading via Rowling’s 7-part series of children’s novels.
A movie franchise soon followed, with the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, hitting screens in 2001. The eighth and final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, would land 10 years later in 2011. And fans welcomed them with open arms, despite their flaws. 17 years later, and the Wizarding World refuses to die with J.K. Rowling breathing new screen life into her creation with the Fantastic Beasts franchise, a five-movie series that is now, following the release of The Crimes of Grindelwald, two films in. Here’s why Fantastic Beasts is shaping up to be better than Harry Potter.
Free to Do What It Wants
So sang The Rolling Stones (almost). Fantastic Beasts has no chains to bind it the way the Harry Potter films had. It’s a new cinematic world, free of the constraints of being tied to the lore and granular details of Rowling’s novels – albeit one connected to the books. This is something that hampered the first two Potter movies in particular, which got bogged down in trying to translate too much from its source material. Both films feel long — each is pushing three hours — and it takes a good hour before the story really gets going in each case.
Chris Columbus, who directed both films, seemed to feel the need to do a lot of unnecessary world-building and exposition, which could have come out more organically over the course of the franchise rather than spending so much time setting the scene early on in both films.
The Herbology lesson with Professor Sprout in The Chamber of Secrets is a scene the film could have well done without. Sure, it introduces Mandrakes, setting up their significance later on but it takes up too much time, affects the film’s flow and doesn’t pay off. It’s a sequence which could have been left on the cutting room floor, improving the pacing of the movie. And did anybody get why they couldn’t – and didn’t – just get Mandrakes from somewhere else later on if their crop wasn’t mature enough yet? It seems like the petrification of students would provide a strong enough impetus to seek out a quick remedy.
Hermione is Fridged
As a result of an immature crop of Mandrakes, and an encounter with the snake-like Basilisk terrorising the school that ostensibly ossifies anyone who makes indirect eye contact with it, Hermione is comatose for the most important part of the film. Yep, The Chamber of Secrets is guilty of the crime of fridging Hermione, using her — a female character — as a device to further the plot and getting her out of the way for Harry and Ron to forge ahead, solve the mystery and vanquish Lockhart, Basilisk, and Tom Riddle.
Interestingly, it’s in her petrified state that she gives Harry the biggest clue that leads to his triumph – a piece of paper she’s scrawled the word ‘Pipes’ on screwed up in her fist THAT NO ONE ELSE DISCOVERED. Convenient. To date, there has been no fridging in the Fantastic Beasts films.
Let’s be clear. We’re not talking the stellar adult acting talent on display. The best thing about the Harry Potter films is the adult actors and their performances. From Richard Harris as Dumbledore in the first two films to a roll call of acclaimed British acting talent that includes Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Jim Broadbent, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, Imelda Staunton, Helen McCrory, Zoe Wanamaker, Elizabeth Spriggs, Helena Bonham Carter, John Cleese, Bill Nighy and more, the films surely boast the greatest (adult) cast of any franchise in the history of cinema.
That jaw-dropping moment during Peter Pettigrew’s reveal in The Prisoner of Azkaban when you realise that’s Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and David Thewlis on screen together. Wow.
But the same can’t be said for the younger cast members, many of whom you could argue were miscast. Which led to a Harry Potter in Daniel Radcliffe that was criticized for not looking the way he should, and awkward scenes like the one in Deathly Hallows Part 2 where Michael Gambon is, to all intents and purposes, giving Radcliffe a lesson in how to WALK on screen. Note how stiff and uncomfortable Radcliffe looks alongside Gambon as they walk and talk in a whited-out Kings Cross Station. As for his mince pie-eating skills (on display in The Half-Blood Prince, when Ginny feeds him one), they could also have used a little honing. Even Radcliffe has said of himself: “I was not the most gifted actor,” in an interview with The Huffington Post.
And when you hear that Rupert Grint was cast as Ron Weasley for his FACE, according to casting director Janet Hirshenson, and Emma Watson as Hermione because she was annoying (but not so annoying that she couldn’t become loveable further down the line), it becomes clear why they perhaps don’t quite hit the heady heights of their elder peers if those were the main criteria. To be fair, they weren’t helped by some of the lines they had to say — there are listicles online dedicated to the saga’s worst. But with the focus of the saga firmly on the children, their casting was crucial. Admittedly, it didn’t affect the box office. And to this day, the franchise has a loyal fanbase. But just think what could have been.
Fantastic Beasts, meanwhile, doesn’t put a foot wrong in terms of casting. Eddie Redmayne, is one of Britain’s hottest acting properties and had already impressed in Les Misérables, The Danish Girl and as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything by the time he took on the role of Newt Scamander. A role to which he brings subtlety and immense likeability.
And then there’s American talent in the mix, too – including the acclaimed (London-born) Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein. As well as Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone, who so impressed in We Need to Talk About Kevin; then, as The Flash, emerged the breakout highlight of the much-derided Justice League movie. Not to mention Dan Fogler, who brings humour, warmth and charm to the role of Jacob, and Johnny Depp who is hypnotic and menacing as Gellert Grindelwald. Then there’s Jude Law, newcomer to the franchise, who has done the seemingly impossible and made Albus Dumbledore not only hot but impish too.
Newt Scamander is a Better Lead than Harry Potter
Let’s look at Harry Potter. He is not the clear-cut hero of the franchise. Two boy wizards do indeed fit the prophesy that there will be a wizard born with the power to defeat Voldemort. One is Potter, the other is Neville Longbottom. It is because Voldemort decides that the wizard in question is Potter that he becomes The Boy Who Lived and enemy to the Dark Lord. It is Longbottom that ultimately defeats Voldemort when he kills Nagini, the seventh and final Horcrux – with the Sword of Gryffindor, no less. Longbottom, therefore, has a claim to rightful hero of the franchise.
But aside from that, Potter is at times quite unlikeable. He’s arrogant – described as such by Snape within the franchise – as well as stubborn and entitled. He seems to revel in the attention that his status brings. I remember thinking him particularly condescending and supercilious when he takes on the teaching of Defence Against the Dark Arts to the Hermione-founded Dumbledore’s Army.
He’s also self-righteous, and makes a firm enemy in Draco Malfoy within moments of meeting him in The Philosopher’s Stone, refusing to shake his hand because of Malfoy’s albeit apparently snooty and intolerant attitude towards wizarding families. “I think I can tell the wrong sort for myself, thanks,” says Potter. Perhaps he could have handled this better. After all, many fans view Malfoy as a victim of circumstance and not necessarily inherently bad like his mother and father. Could he have handled Draco differently and made an ally rather than foe?
Newt, meanwhile, is sweet-natured. A Hufflepuff who embodies the traits of the House, he’s patient, loyal, hard-working and just. He’s admired by Albus Dumbledore, as we learn in The Crimes of Grindelwald, for always striving to do the “right” thing. Newt might not fit the image of the standard hero – he’s shy and awkward and a bit of a loner — but it’s soon apparent he’s both brave and dogged as well as intelligent with a big heart, motivated by, as Dumbledore observes, doing what’s right.
He’s also wise, imparting sagacious words such as “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice” as he’s dressing Jacob Kowalski in a helmet and padding before tackling an amorous Erumpent in Central Park during the first movie. He might not have been the first to say it but coming from the adorably chill Newt, it sticks. As a worrier, myself, this is now my mantra. Finally, he shows his big heart and open mind when he tells his brother Theseus he won’t pick sides when encouraged to take on a job at the Ministry of Magic and hunt Credence.
Grindelwald Is A Better Villain than Voldemort
There are compelling reasons as to why Grindelwald is a better villain – and some of those reasons are laid out in the article above. He’s arguably a more complex and dangerous antagonist, who threatens the entire world with his plans to dominate both wizarding and non-wizarding worlds. Voldemort can be seen as a somewhat two-dimensional villain, thwarted at the end of each Potter movie, like in an episode of Scooby Doo. You can imagine him shaking his fist at times, saying: “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids.”
Voldemort has also been at the mercy of some dodgy CGI. In the first film, he was a ropey-looking face in the back of Professor Quirrell’s head, while later in the series he takes the form of a baby-sized California raisin.
Grindelwald, meanwhile, has a fascinating connection to Dumbledore that makes both characters all the more interesting. He’s also reflective of real-world villains as a representative of extremism. Truly frightening, and dangerous, he’s manipulative in a way that far exceeds Voldemort’s ability to play puppeteer. He plays on Queenie’s emotions and fears to get her onside in The Crimes of Grindelwald, exploiting her desire to marry Jacob; and he continues to manipulate Credence by tapping into his loneliness and search for meaning, identity and love in order to get him to do his bidding.
Jacob Kowalski Vs Ron Weasley
If Jacob is to Newt as Ron is to Harry, comparisons are inevitable. J.K. Rowling suggested to actor Dan Fogler that his character Jacob is “kindred spirits” with Ron, but the red-headed Weasley boy can’t hold a candle to Kowalski when it comes to sidekick credentials. Remember the time in Goblet of Fire when Ron got disproportionately angry with Harry when he thought he’d put his name into the Goblet? That still irks. Ron is the comic relief in Potter. He’s often the fall guy, but is he ever really that funny? Go back and re-watch and tell me you don’t think Ron is more cringe than lol-worthy. That extends to the Weasley twins too – did you seriously laugh when Fred pretended to be George to his mother on Platform 9 ¾?
Fogler as the baker who gets swept up in a world of magic, meanwhile, was an instant hit in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. He’s a masterclass in facial expressions, for a start – the face he pulls when he’s charmed by Queenie in Fantastic Beast 2 is priceless.
As a No-Maj, Jacob is the audience’s point of identification, representing us and our place in the Wizarding World. Fantastic Beasts is better integrated into the real world than the Harry Potter films, which don’t really have a meaningful grounding in reality until Order of the Phoenix, the fifth film in the franchise. Fantastic Beasts sets out its stall from the start to better blend the world of magic with muggle reality. Meaning it makes outstanding use of its period New York, London and Paris settings. This also serves to amplify Grindelwald’s threat – if he succeeds in his plan then the entire world is at risk.
We all know what a Dementor is said to do. It feeds on misery by sucking out a person’s happy memories. And if it feeds for long enough, you become soulless and evil, a bit like the Dementor itself. But while we saw Dementors sucking like it was an Olympic sport in the Harry Potter films, we never actually saw the ill-famed effects. Harry himself had several encounters with them – sometimes prolonged – and though some of his unhappiest thoughts would re-emerge, it wasn’t clear what happy memories he lost, if any. And it never seemed to have any lasting effect on him.
With an Obscurus, on the other hand, we’re in no doubt of the devastating and lasting damage they are able to do – never mind their tragic backstory. You know, the one about forming in children who suppress magic and then tormenting them and all around them when they emerge? We’ve seen vividly what an Obscurus can do in both Fantastic Beasts films – it’s a whirling storm of violent, furious energy that destroys everything in its path.
Fantastic Beasts Gets Historical and Political
While you will find several key themes in Harry Potter, they’re often general concepts like death, friendship and loyalty. Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is more overtly political — and historical — anchoring it firmly to the real world and serving as an analogy for the times. Which makes it arguably more relevant and powerful. At the UK premiere, Eddie Redmayne claimed that the film reflects the “seismic changes that are taking place in the world”, while also asking: “Is it good enough to be kind and good, when the stakes are getting higher in the world outside? In this film, [Newt] is forced to engage, and to act.”
Grindelwald, a charismatic and influential leader, represents intolerance and extremism. He brainwashes his followers and practices terrorism, attempting to blow up Paris without a thought for anybody caught up in the fallout.
The franchise’s 1920s setting also allows room for references to history. The first film nods nicely to the New York of the era when Jacob asks for a bank loan to build his bakery business. He’s turned down in part because “there are machines now that can produce hundreds of doughnuts an hour”, which is reflective of the times. Jacob has returned from fighting in Europe in World War I and is looking for his next step. During the war, the American GIs ate doughnuts in the trenches made by the French women to remind them of home. It’s here that they really got a taste for doughnuts, and they brought this back with them. Which led to New York’s first doughnut machine in 1920.
Animal Rights Messaging
While the Harry Potter franchise has the animal-loving Hagrid, Newt is an activist. It’s his mission to teach the world about magical creatures not only to preserve their existence but also to promote understanding, minimising fear and tackling mistreatment. “I’m writing a book about magical creatures… A guide to help people understand why we should be protecting these creatures instead of killing them,” declares Newt in the first film. He’s essentially David Attenborough. And no Harry Potter is better than a veritable Sir David, right?
In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt is trying to return the Thunderbird home to Arizona, but when his creatures escape his suitcase, he impresses on us all why it’s necessary to round them up: “They’re currently in alien terrain surrounded by millions of the most vicious creatures on the planet, humans.” It’s a stark reminder of how awful we are as a species. In The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt winds up rescuing the Zouwu from a miserable life as a caged circus animal, and wants to protect the Obscurus rather than obliterate it from existence. It’s a very pertinent message we can all get behind.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is out now.