Film Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald



Directed by: David Yates; Runtime: 134 minutes
Grade: C-

It's tough to be a fan of the Harry Potter franchise and not be as into its Fantastic Beasts prequel spinoff, especially considering the participation of author J.K. Rowling as screenwriter. For all its charmingly rendered creatures, ‘20s-era appearance, and nudge-wink references to the story proper, David Yates' next foray in the wildly-popular universe carries over the awkwardly heavy tones and stilted, erratic characterization from his later, less cinematically successful entries. Much like the protracted two-parter Deathly Hallows, Fantastic Beasts also feels every bit like it's obligated to continuation instead of genuinely inspired. While similar observations apply to the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, they are relatively secondary to the film's more pressing missteps: Yates and Rowling have confused ostentation with beastly wonder, overestimated the draw power of the characters' depths, and ultimately assumed more Wizarding World meant they could overextend a plot where little actually evolves leading into a third film. The result is, quite easily, the worst Potter film yet.

Some spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will naturally follow from hereon out, the most notable being that evil mastermind Grindelwald, whom was unmasked at the end of Fantastic Beasts to reveal a graying Johnny Depp, has been imprisoned by America's wizard law enforcement. While being transferred from the max security facility there to London to be tried for his crimes -- always a brilliant move; especially so for an immensely powerful dark wizard -- Grindelwald breaks loose from their control and, naturally, begins to rally the troops. As the Ministry of Magic seeks the whereabouts of Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the gray-area villain from the first film, and as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) attempts to return to his normal traveler's life as a beast wrangler, Grindelwald's influence spreads and draws in those who might be considered allies to the Ministry. Much of their hope lies in the hands of a familiar name whose past once intersected with Grindelwald: Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who is at this point the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

One of the complaints thrown out at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 was that it felt overly stretched-out, that the novel's narrative had been prolonged so the plot could be split into two money-making blockbusters, and that, by itself, it came across as buildup without significant development or payoff. The Crimes of Grindelwald does just about the same, but without the guarantee of a second half to resolve any cliffhangers or justifying the plot's lack of advancement. Now, let's not kid ourselves: there'll be another Fantastic Beasts film; however, the substance of this one suffers from the same presumptuousness as its Harry Potter counterpart, using this gap-filling "middle" entry to extend the story longer than it should. When you look at the state of the Fantastic Beasts plotline at the beginning and at the end of The Crimes of Grindelwald, it's hard not to come away from it without thinking that … well, not much has really happened, and that's over two hours of things not happening. This feels like buying time until more interesting things happen, which can also be viewed as wasting time.

There's a difference between things not happening and things not changing, and that's where The Crimes of Grindelwald hopes to make up for its lack of forward movement in the story, by exploring how the characters change in response to things learned about themselves, others, and the Wizarding World. J.K. Rowling had a challenge ahead of her: devotees to the Harry Potter franchise have a loose grasp on where the events of this prequel -- and the next -- will ultimately end up, while more casual fans can be fickle in their interest levels behind seeing what's already happened in past events in the Harry Potter universe. With an emphasis on Grindelwald and a brewing war between noble wizards and those who practice the dark arts, one can't help but ultimately think to themselves that, yeah, everything's going to turn out fine from all this; however, the interest falls on how certain "good guys" would be persuaded into cooperating with Grindelwald's agenda. The answers, widespread as they may be, aren't very creative, taking cues from X-Men and the Underworld series in the villain's appeals to superiority. For being the series' second most powerful dark wizard, Grindelwald and Johnny Depp's performance within it are unfathomably bland, leading one to miss Colin Farrell.



Sure, there's more going on in The Crimes of Grindelwald than exploring its lackluster villain. Rowling also reveals more about the recurring heroes in her Fantastic Beasts prequel universe; however, their reentry reeks of sequel shenanigans. Newt Scamander remains something of a tourist throughout the events of this film, with just enough of a personal connection through his brother -- Theseus, an auror with Britain's Ministry of Magic investigating the whereabouts of Credence -- to ensure that he appears relevant to what's going on. Other characters from Fantastic Beasts return through mechanical or, at times, nonsensical methods, bringing back quirky mood relievers Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) in a way that undercuts where they ended up in the first, while also working Newt's half-romantic interest Tina (Katherine Waterston), an American auror, into the fray. New characters Theseus and the familiarly-named Lita Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) add echoes of depth to the film's dramatic endeavors, yet neither are strong enough as standalone presences to latch onto them, merely servicing the backstory that's disguised as a plot here.

David Yates and his team of both practical and digital wizards certainly know how to generate a visually gripping universe, from the precision of costumes to ornate, weathered set craftsmanship and the digital rendering of beasts from one's imagination. Boy, does it feel shallow in The Crimes of Grindelwald, though, as if they're parlor tricks designed to hold one's fleeting attention span instead of to lock one's captivation with a world being created. Scenes with new beasts are lengthy and majestic, holding little purpose beyond reemphasizing Newt's preference for them above humans. There's a point where key characters navigate the shifting pillars of a magic archive that taps into into a sense of awe not unlike seeing Gringotts or the Ministry of Magic for the first time, though that gets weakened by the arrival of questionably rendered -- though, admittedly, still slick and intimidating -- CG antagonists. And yes, in a continuation of sequel desperation, The Crimes of Grindelwald departs to Hogwarts so it can interact with a dashing young Albus Dumbledore, impeccably played by Jude Law, though the sight of its architecture, levitating candles and such actually set the stage for numerous inconsistencies and oddities in the plot, from confusing backstories and arbitrary plot constraints to outright holes.

For all its grandeur and deep interest in the setting's history, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald struggles to, frankly, have much of a point. Seemingly big things occur near its end -- from a dazzling and persistent onslaught of magical blue infernos to a key reveal about the lineage of the mysterious Credence Barebone -- yet after the flames die out and the shock value wears off, the ramifications of what's transpired lack the sort of concrete substance or immediacy that makes one want to know what comes out of it. Rowling has a great time exploring these events that ultimately build into her world that's enchanted so many people across the globe, but she's done so within the space of a story that lacks momentum and excitement until the script decides that it's reached a point where it's necessary. The pacing suffers, the focus suffers, and the anticipation suffers upon its pseudo-cliffhanger of a conclusion, which left me feeling how nobody should feel at the end of a prequel: it's pretty obvious what's going to happen next, and not even outright wizarding warfare can conjure up enthusiasm for it.

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