This piece contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
This weekend, after some house cleaning and the chaos of Thanksgiving, my mom and I went to the movies. We both wanted to see Moana and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, so we settled on a double feature: Fantastic Beasts first, then dinner, and Moana for dessert.
Over dinner, we discussed the first movie. We both liked it, we agreed. We thought the visual effects were (pun intended) fantastic, the creatures were fascinating, and that Eddie Redmayne was a great choice for the lead.
But as we discussed, a thought occurred to me. I turned to my mom with a question.
“Did you understand who Grindelwald was?”
Her answer, of course, was no. My mom has seen the movies, but she never read the books. Though she might have remembered his brief appearance in the final films, he wasn’t really highlighted. For her, Grindelwald was just a name on a newspaper. The significance of his presence in the film was lost to her entirely.
Fantastic Beasts is a movie produced under strange, but increasingly common circumstances. Harry Potter is a global phenomenon — you’d be hard pressed to find someone of my generation who hasn’t read or at least watched it. It sparked films, LEGOs, theme parks, and the ever-expanding Pottermore, for those who just can’t get enough of the world. Fantastic Beasts is a product of that multimedia empire and ravenous fanbase, always clamoring for more — it’s a story already sketched out in vague lines for devoted fans who picked up the “textbook” on which it is based.
But the film fleshes that story out. And as a part of a multimedia franchise, it does so in a manner that assumes many things about what its audience knows about the setting. If Fantastic Beasts were merely a sequel, that might be okay. There is an expectation with sequels that you really only get the full picture if you’ve followed the series (although skilled writers should be able to ground you in the story regardless.)
But Fantastic Beasts isn’t a sequel, as such. It’s the beginning of a new series, one that, while related to Harry Potter tangentially, exists entirely on its own plot and characters. It is our entry into a world familiar, yet strange.
But if this is our entry point… boy, is it muddled.