Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: A Charming New Chapter of the Wizarding World

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Some people may understand I say that the first time I saw the commercial for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it felt very much like deciding whether to go and order another cup of coffee. On the one hand, you know you’ve already had several and so drinking another will probably ruin the pleasant effect, but on the other hand the thought is so appealing, and it looks so damn good that you can’t help but wonder if this one might be even better than all the rest.

At first, the movie seemed like just another cash-grab. And when J.K. Rowling announced that she plans to turn it into a series, with five films rather than the initially planned three, I have to admit it felt like another example of an author milking their success.

But seeing the movie turned out to be much different, and the feeling of relaxation, enjoyment, and overall lightness after exiting the theatre made the verdict quite clear: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is very good. The adulthood missing from Harry Potter is present in Fantastic Beasts.

Fantastic Beasts transports the viewer to New York in 1926, and it is the wizard and magizoolistic Newt Scamander who serves as our protagonist. He is just as British as Harry, and as tussled and quirky, but that is where their similarities end. Unlike Harry, who we first met at 10-years-old, Newt begins the series as an adult and has the knowledge to prove it. He never sets out to flagrantly display his intellect, but instead spends the movie content with inwardly curating it out of the joy that it brings him.

The main conflict of the film is a little formulaic, part Pandora’s box and part comical-accident-turned-catastrophic. The magical suitcase Newt brings into NYC ends up switched with a suitcase full of pastries carried by the No-Maj (the American term for Muggles) Jacob Kowalski, who accidentally releases several of the magical creatures within it. One of these animals is the adorable Niffler, which has the appearance of an echidna and the personality of a magpie, amassing all the gold and jewels it finds into its bottomless pouch.

And thus begins a hunt for the missing creatures throughout the city, with the help of Porpentina ‘Tina’ Goldstein, her Legilimens (telepathic) sister “Queenie,” and Jacob.

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Right from the start one finds the distinction Rowling draws between the North American and European wizardly worlds. From the use of terminology for regular humans (muggles vs. no-maj), to the American wizards governed by the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is headed by a president. There is even a squabble at one point between Newt and Queenie over which wizarding school is the best in the world. Of course, Newt represents Hogwarts while Queenie argues for the recently introduced and still unfamiliar Ilvermorny.

Some aspects of the world-building cross the geographical borders, such as the Deathly Hallows sigil and the name dropping of Albus Dumbledore. Others transcend time and begin to create a sense of interconnectedness with the future, occurring in the form of a photograph Newt carries with him of Leta Lestrange, as he later admits, a past love from his Hogwarts years that ended poorly.

These differences and connections within the plot cannot compare to the most important difference of all: that of the quality of the story. Rowling presents a much more measured and sophisticated approach to magic, making it feel magical and all-encompassing in a way that doesn’t bombard one with a dazzling show of gimmicks and terminology as the Harry Potter series did. Instead time is taken to show the inside of Newt’s suitcase, to explore the nooks and crannies of it and develop a personal attachment to the creatures living inside it, giving a detailed example of the Undetectable Extension charm which was previously only vaguely shown in Hermione’s bag.

There is also a greater sense of order—or lack thereof—and consequence in the movie. The character of Mary Lou Barebone, head of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an order that that fights to draw New York’s attention to the existence of witches, adds a touch of urgency to the story. She was a reminder that the threat of exposure and negative influence of no-majs on the wizards was just as significant as the threat wizards posed to each other.

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I can find few qualms in the movie, and even those are more technical than they are glaring plot errors. The obsession with darkness and dark scenes grew to be a bit much at certain points, making some scenes difficult to make out visually. The casting of Johnny Depp was another reason for confusion. His appearance in the film and just in general were unpleasant, by the bleached hair, eyebrows, and moustache, while his last words “Will we die just a little?” were delivered in a muffled manner that was also contextually disappointing.

These had little impact on the movie, which was a well-crafted story of adult wizards and witches from beginning to end. It did have the quality of a prologue to it, and some may find it to lack action while stressing the informative tone, but that is to be expected of a movie that is not only part of a series but is also introducing a new side of the wizarding world.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them balances the familiar with the new, the former used more as a strategy to make the viewer more comfortable with the latter. It isn’t a crutch but rather a reminder that there is always room to create new worlds, characters, and plots, which is exactly what Rowling was able to achieve. The fact that she wrote the screenplay gave the movie a quality of confidence and authenticity, strengthening the sense of magic and wonder it already possessed.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Poor Teaching Practices of Professor Dumbledore

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Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore was a great man. A champion of wizard and muggle rights, defender of the innocent, genius, scholar, warrior, philosopher, and general. Founder of the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore single-handedly stopped the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald’s reign of terror, kept the dangerous Elder Wand safe from those who would abuse its power, and waged two wars against the Dark Lord Voldemort (yeah, I can say his name) over a period of twenty years, even giving his life in order to stop the darkness.

Dumbledore’s life stood for kindness and compassion for others, and the value and power of love. I love him and I will challenge anyone who disagrees to a duel. And yet… how well suited was Dumbledore to be the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

Here, to the detriment of my own soul, I admit that as great a man as Dumbledore undoubtedly was, he wasn’t a very good headmaster.

Let us start with the dangers that Dumbledore allowed into his school. Does everyone remember in The Philosopher’s Stone when three eleven year old children stumbled into a room that held a gigantic, vicious three-headed dog? I sure do, that book was great. But you might be shouting, “Fluffy and the other traps were there to protect the philosophers stone you moron!”. And yes, I know this.

It was a very decent thing of Professor Dumbledore to do, to keep safe the most important possession of a dear friend against the forces of evil. But…why exactly did Dumbledore decide to do this in a school? Yeah sure, he mentioned at the feast that year that the third floor was out of bounds to any who didn’t want to suffer a horrible death. This is a school full of children! It was wildly inappropriate for Dumbledore to hide the philosopher’s stone inside of the school where his priority should be the children. Yes, he had the best intentions, but he still endangered the lives of his students in order to prevent the return of Lord Voldemort.

Also, speaking of monsters, remember how there was a giant child-killing snake hiding in the Hogwarts castle? The first time the Chamber of Secrets was opened, Dumbledore was a professor! A child was killed, and that was absolutely out of his hands. But later, once the attacks stopped, Dumbledore just kind of went, “Well, I know there is a child-killing monster somewhere in this castle. Neat.” and he did nothing about it! There is no evidence that in the fifty years between the times the chamber was opened that Albus ever so much as peeked under a bed to try and look for it.

Now we must come to Dumbledore’s teaching practices. Professor Quirrell can be excused, as he was hired before supergluing the Dark Lord to his head. I will also fight anyone who says it was inappropriate to hire Remus Lupin. Even Hagrid I would say was a perfectly decent choice for the Magical Creature’s professor, although some limits as to what he was allowed to teach at what level (and what he was allowed to breed) should have been firmly put in place before Hagrid accepted the job.

So this leaves us with six teachers we know were hired by Albus Dumbledore during his tenure as headmaster of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry: Severus Snape, Gilderoy Lockhart, Sybill Trelawney, Firenze, Mad-Eye Moody, and Horace Slughorn.

The most obvious and insane mistake of Dumbledore’s hirings: Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart, who is a barely-competent wizard, a selfish fraud, and a charlatan, is hired by Albus Dumbledore, a man adept in seeing through people, has the power to read minds, and hopefully the ability to check references. What on earth prompted Dumbledore to hire a man who is so obviously incompetent that a bunch of twelve year olds figured it out after a couple weeks of lessons? Really, there are only two possible explanations.

  1. He did it because it was funny. Yes, Albus has a great sense of humour. No, it should not be at the cost of the education of the youth under his care. Or…
  2. Dumbledore thought Lockhart was very pretty, and so hired him on the basis of how pretty he was. This is horrible and his students suffered as a result, though admittedly, since I too am hoping to get by in life by being so very pretty, it does give me hope for my future.

Sybil Trelawney is a true psychic. Indeed, it was her prophecy which caused the deaths of James and Lily Potter, and ensured that their son Harry would be the one to bring about the downfall of Lord Voldemort. Knowing her importance, Dumbledore agreed to hire her as the divination professor in order to keep her safe from Voldemort’s forces.

But just to be clear, so far as Dumbledore is aware, Trelawney has only ever made one real prophecy in her life. Albus believes that the rest of the time, Trelawney is a fake. He does not hire her to teach his students, he hires her as a chess piece in his war against Voldemort. An asset in a supernatural war is really not a good reason to hire a bad educator.

Now how about Mad-Eye Moody, eh? Yes, I know Moody himself never got a chance to teach since he had been secretly replaced a Death Eater. That wasn’t the real Mad-Eye. But we still meet the real Mad-Eye Moody in later books. We get to see how paranoid, abrupt, and extreme he is. This is a man with intense PTSD from his time as an officer of the law. He is brilliant, but he is also prone to violence, shouting, and telling people that someone is going to come and try to kill them at any moment.

Albus Dumbledore thought it would be cool to put this man in charge of eleven year old children. Maybe I’m being judgmental here, and it could have turned out that if given the chance, Mad-Eye would have been a great teacher and had hidden talents in working with youth.

But I don’t think so.

And finally: Snape and Slughorn.

Slughorn is a more than competent potions master. He is perfectly capable to do the job he has been hired to do and, creepily making students join his pseudo-cult aside, he seems like a good teacher. But this is not why Dumbledore hires Slughorn. Slughorn is actually hired so that Dumbledore can have Harry Potter extract a memory from the old professor, so that Albus may confirm his theory on Voldemort’s seven horcruxes. Slughorn is hired so that Albus can continue the fight against Voldemort. It had nothing to do with his teaching ability.

And finally, Snape. Snape, who is Dumbledore’s valued spy. Snape, who Dumbledore entrusts with both his life and his death. Snape, who brutally tortures the child of the woman he loved, just because she didn’t love him back. Snape, who was biased in the classroom, cruel, and abusive. Snape, who made thirteen year old Neville Longbottom more afraid of his teacher than anything else in the universe.

I understand that Snape was ultimately not the villain he pretended to be. Snape did what he needed to do on Dumbledore’s orders. He was an excellent spy and soldier. But he was a terrible teacher. Maybe Harry could forgive Snape for his treatment of children, but I can’t. Dumbledore brought Snape to Hogwarts to fight a war against evil, and they won. But he did so at the cost of allowing a teacher to bully his students until they trembled when he approached.

I will never forgive Snape for being the thing that the Bogart became at the sight of Neville.

If there is an underlying theme of my criticism of the headmaster, I think it is that Dumbledore often put his fight against evil over the safety and education of his students. Yes, he did the right thing, he stopped a terrible dark wizard from destroying his people. Albus worked as hard as he could, and saved as many as he could. But really, did he do so as a teacher? No. Many of his hiring practices were to do with fighting evil, which was good for the fight, but bad for the school.

Dumbledore might have turned down the position of Minister of Magic, believing he could not be trusted with power. But really, it might not have been a bad idea to go and run the war from the Ministry instead of the school. If anything else, he could have at least found a place for that giant three-headed dog where an eleven year old girl couldn’t break the lock.

Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore. Great man. Lousy school administrator.

 

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

The Magical Side Of The MCU: Doctor Strange’s Shift From The Page To The Screen

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Spoiler Warning!

You’ve never seen the magical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) before, but after seeing Doctor Strange in theatres, I guarantee that you’ll want to see more of it.

The MCU has broached science fiction before between the inventions of Tony Stark and the space adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, the MCU approaches traditional fantasy by exploring the world of magic and spells with the future Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. How well did this film treat the subject of magic and how faithful was it to its source material?

Doctor Strange was no stranger to its source material, though some changes were made to serve the cinematic timeline and larger plotlines. Firstly, the MCU’s Doctor Strange is set in the 2016 contemporary world, whereas the comic debut was set during the Silver Age in the 1960s. Naturally, many facts changed as a result.

The biggest change surrounds the villain “Kaecilius”, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, and “Baron Mordo”, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale) is no stranger to playing villains and if you’re looking for a good villain, you’ll be happy to hear that he delivers. However, in the comics Kaecilius is merely a named disciple of Baron Mordo, and most of Kaecilius’ role and power in the film is actually closer to Baron Mordo in the comics.

The problem is that the modern setting of the MCU could never explain Baron Mordo’s reason for turning baddie; in the comic universe, it’s a product of his disillusion from WW1. It’s unclear how the MCU will treat Baron Mordo, but his disillusionment with the modern world will have to be derived from another source if he does become a villain.

The second large change to source material was the Eye of Agamotto. In the comics, the Eye could emit light to dispel illusions, look into the souls of others, and had the capacity to view incidents that had recently passed. While the comics never explained its origins, the MCU has made the Eye of Agamotto a significant relic to serve a larger plotline: now, the eye is an Infinity Stone, specifically the fifth Infinity Stone, called the Time Stone. I don’t think most fans would complain about this change; however, the power of amulet may have been greatly exaggerated in the film and let’s just leave it at that.

The most controversial deviation from source material was the casting of Tilda Swinton for the portrayal of the “Ancient One”. The Ancient One in the comics was an elderly man of Tibetan descent, but the MCU decided on a female of Caucasian complexion for the role. Whatever your feelings on this matter, Tilda Swanton delivers a powerful performance. Unfortunately, the bald cap that she wore was extremely noticeable at parts and provoked some laughs from the crowd during scenes that were supposed to be somber.

This movie has an excellent cast and the actors deliver. Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is spot on, both as the arrogant surgeon pre-magic and as the humorous yet intensive the-ends-justifies-the-means magician post-magic. The only deviation was his mastery of pop culture references; the MCU’s Doctor Strange has a definite advantage over the graphic novel’s character in that regard.

The film’s treatment of magic is both faithful and intricate. The explanation of magic in the film was gratifying because the film actually provided a magical system. Magic was derived from scrolls and old texts and there was a requirement to study spells as a subject, rather than just have some innate use of them. The use of geometry to distinguish between the different types of spells was evocative of alchemy and the mandalas that originally influenced the character’s creator, Steve Ditko. Alternatively, the geometry could have correlated to the Sacred Geometry in the occult genre that informed the later Doctor Strange graphic fiction.

As an extension of magic, there is an appropriate analogy to be made between this movie and Inception. The manipulation of physics and structural solidarity, exemplified by the folding of city streets or the walls of a church in the trailer is fully utilized in the movie. These mind-blowing visuals are complimented by multi-dimensional traveling. My only gripe is that alternative dimensional beings weren’t significantly explored like they are in the comics. Nonetheless, you plan to see the film, watch it in 3D!

Doctor Strange is a fantastic origin story that is both intriguing and humorous in all the right areas without dwelling on the hero-founding incident. As one who usually complains when a film isn’t faithful to its source material, Doctor Strange’s slight deviations from the source material are illusions: too small to cause incident, and not even worth investigation by the graphic novel’s Eye of Agamotto.

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-Contributed by Eric Harrell

The Never-Melting Magic of The Night Circus

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Illustration by Margaryta Golovchenko

Some books are best read under specific conditions. Some must be read while you’re in a certain mindset or at a particular point in time. December might be the best example of the latter scenario, when many people have a book they read as a kind of year-end ritual or to get into the mood of the holidays.

I am one of those people, but my year-end reading ritual is slightly different. I received Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus for Christmas in 2011, the year it came out. It was probably the first book on my to-read list that I bought before first reading it elsewhere to decide whether I wanted to own a copy. It was a complete stab in the dark, and one that has since changed my reading and writing.

The book tells the story of two magicians who have been choosing students and pitting them against each other in a vaguely defined rivalry that has existed for decades, perhaps even centuries. Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are initially meant to be no more than new contestants in this challenge to determine which of the two magicians has the most capable pupil, with Le Cirque des Rêves acting as the playing field. However, the magnetic attraction between Celia and Marco becomes an unexpected factor, their love unfolding in hesitant tremors, manifesting in the intricate and magical circus tents they create both as parts of their challenge and as physical love letters to each other. As always, an unforeseen romance can only stay alive with perseverance, magic, and perfect timing.

The Night Circus isn’t a traditional take on magic or the art of the circus world. Despite the monochromatic colour scheme of Le Cirque des Rêves and the book itself, their contents are anything but. This book is for a patient reader: one who doesn’t mind being slowly led through its pages by the glacial but tempting narrative that, like a quiet but insightful tour guide, never fails to point out all the right sights—from circus tents such as the Ice Garden and the Pool of Tears to features of characters themselves, like Tsukiko’s winding tattoos of mystical symbols.

It isn’t a book you can rush through, or rather it isn’t one you should approach in such a way. The magic of the circus needs time to unravel, to pull you under and silently inject its needle of magical realism into you.

Many a bibliophile dreads the question “What is your favourite novel?” Admittedly, at first I didn’t consider The Night Circus to be my favourite, contrary to my current assurance of its claim to that title. It took a couple of rereads for me to recognize the way my mind easily gets lost within the descriptions of luscious fabrics and caramelized apples. I joined the ranks of the rêveurs, headed by Friedrick Thiessen, the clockmaker responsible for the circus’ Wunschtraum clock. I also discovered that rereading it during the spring or summer didn’t feel right somehow, like the magic of the words wasn’t as potent. It is only during December that I can feel the full impact, particularly the impact of the story’s more deeply buried thoughts that are fully laid out only in the final chapters.

At the end of the year many people mentally summarize what they consider to be their successes and failures over the last twelve months. During this window of time it is easy to fantasize about possibilities that lie ahead. Although I cannot always withstand the temptation to take the book off its shelf and read it during a mild spring day or in the waning days of summer, The Night Circus has become part of my year-end reading ritual for five years and counting. Reading it reminds me of the magic of words and of the imagination, sometimes acting as a reassurance in times when I doubt the validity of my own writing.

At other times the book plays to my love for details and observation. The experience of reading it becomes more and more like watching a movie progress before my eyes with each following chapter. And above all, it caters to the child inside, the one I know never grew up but instead has simply become more adept at seeking ways to add a tiny bit of magic to what, at times, can be a mundane life.

Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko