It’s a pretty dark message to take away from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but they did say this was going to be a darker rendition of the wizarding world. After all, it took four movies before Harry Potter managed to snag a PG-13 rating and we kick off this new franchise already at that benchmark. And it’s not surprising — my theater on Thursday night was filled with 20-somethings and up, and the world is a far different one than the last time I sat in a theater six years ago waiting for a Harry Potter premiere. This shows in the more all-encompassing themes as well. While the original series focused heavily on love, friendship, and sacrifice as it pertained to your own choices, this film looks at the guilt of society as a whole.
Naturally, this is where the Americans come in.
The American wizarding community — under the government of MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States) and its president Seraphina Picquery — is, naturally, incredibly partisan, stratified, and controversial. Many of the unfortunate parts of the real U.S. government are reflected in MACUSA’s policies. While the British Ministry of Magic allows the interaction and cohabitation between Muggles and wizards, so long as the Statute of Secrecy is not broken, MACUSA forbids fraternizing between wizards and no-mag’s, including the outlaw of intermarriage. While America is not the only country in the world with backwards marriage laws, they have been featured and criticized on the world stage as an archaic compared to fellow Western countries. So it goes with the magical side of the country as well.
Further, the form of execution we see attempted to be carried out during one sequence is particularly cruel. The use of a pretty dangerous looking Pensive-like mass sedates the victim into actually wanting to step in to the flaming vat of death (it’s also ironic that the capital punishment for a witch is being burned to death). The British counterpart to this world is not innocent either, as the Dementor’s kiss figured heavily as a barbaric and incredibly torturous way to be put to “death.” Now, Grindelwald may be to blame for the fact that you can apparently just say “execute them” and it happens, but there also seems to be a lovely lack of due process in this world as well. However, that might have just been the product of writing cuts, since this movie was already pushing two and a half hours.
The worst offense, however, comes in the form of a new element added into the Harry Potter canon: the Obscurus. This creature is, tragically, a human being, and — even more tragically — a child, as Newt points out the oldest known Obscurus (before Credence’s reveal) was age ten. These beings are the product of centuries of prejudice against magical beings, when many children were forced to repress their nature. The result was an uncontrollable mass of angry, tormented energy with incredibly destructive tendencies. The parallels draw themselves, of course.
The worst part about this, however, is in how these children are treated once they’ve reached this point. The Obscurus is seen as another entity entirely — a creature — despite the fact that an Obscurus is still, at their core, a human, and able to transform back into a human state. MACUSA, however, operates on a kill-on-sight policy when it comes to Obscurus. And despite Newt and Tina’s best efforts to calm Credence down and offer help (efforts that were, tragically, working) the MACUSA Aurors stepped in to obliterate the young man. The purpose of Newt as the only protagonist we could have in this world becomes clear.
Newt is nothing like Harry. Where Harry was headstrong, courageous to a fault, and generally outgoing among his peers, Newt comes across as a quiet young man, unable to hold eye contact with anyone for too long, who speaks very quietly. He prefers to presence of his creatures inside the small zoo he’s created in his briefcase and actively avoids interactions and friendships with other people. It’s hinted that, while he’s always been this way, this introversion may have been encouraged by bullying during his school years and the estrangement from his one friend, Leda Lestrange. It is fitting then, that this person who seems a passive misanthrope and who casually names humans as the most dangerous creatures on the planet, should be the one to face down something only he can truly see as human.
But, sadly, sometimes the lesser parts of society win. And after a very startling November that proved to be a very painful time for a lot of people, it’s a poignant moment watching Newt reach out to this person and start to make strides toward progress, only to have it dashed away and destroyed by a louder, more powerful group of people.
The film is a message to those who were children when Dumbledore spoke of the magical power of love, now looking at a darker world where — it seems — love sometimes doesn’t always win. We watch Newt fail, but that failure is less sticking than his quiet kindness and persistent loyalty to his friends and those he believes need his help. For him, animals are the true innocents in the world, and the Obscura blurs the lines between the cruelty of humanity and the natural innocence of animals. That ultimate connection was not quite made yet in this movie because it was clear that the world in which Newt inhabits is not yet ready for his big heart.
But, as there is in our own world, there is hope.