Film Review: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

fantastic beasts - the crimes of grindelwald - movie poster one sheetAuthor J.K.Rowling has deserved all of her tremendous success with the extraordinarily successful Harry Potter franchise. Seven books. Eight movies. A stage production. Countless toys. And then there’s Fantastic Beasts, a related franchise that takes place in the “Potterverse” as a set of prequels to the famous story of The Boy Who Lived. The first film in the franchise, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, started as a short book by Rowling that was “co-authored” by Newt Scamander, a fictional character from the Potterverse.

The new Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second in what’s apparently planned as a five film series (at least, according to IMDb). But here’s the problem that this newest film makes all too apparent: everything that made the Harry Potter storyline so fun is completely missing from the world of Fantastic Beasts.

I admit, there was an undeniable thrill seeing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as we returned to the world of Harry Potter, with muggles, the Ministry of Magic, wands, simple incantations, and everything else that made the original series so tremendous. But it was also impossible to miss that the film lacked a heart and had precious little charm to offset its high-budget visual effects. In Harry Potter, the parallel stories of Harry (Daniel Radcliff) going through the turmoil of adolescence even as he’s key to a grand good vs. evil story was beautifully balanced and worked great. In Fantastic Beasts, however, everyone’s an adult and none of them are anywhere near as interesting.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald focuses on the evil Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), who intends to bring the wizarding world out of hiding and have witches and wizards rule the muggle world. As the film opens, Grindelwald has been imprisoned at the American Ministry of Magic for months and is being transferred to the British Ministry of Magic to answer for his crimes. The transfer doesn’t go well – in a chaotic and confusing sequence of bewildering visual effects – and Grindelwald is on the loose!

Fighting Grindelwald are a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and shy, reluctant Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Dumbledore is already teaching at Hogwarts School, and it’s great fun when the film returns to the castle for a few too-brief visits. Albus gets precious little screen time too, disappointingly. Scamander, however, is a great hero, tongue-tied and bookish, able to befriend any beast or creature, however fearsome. There’s a lot of Hagrid in his character for people who know the potterverse, but Redmayne, a superb actor, makes Newt the kind of awkward young man you just want to befriend and assist in his quest.

Stick with me now: Newt is enamored with Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who works for the American Ministry of Magic and is again helping him find Grindelwald. Newt also enlists the help of muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who’s smitten with Porpentina’s sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol). But they’re not really chasing after Grindelwald because the key person, for reasons we never learn, is the downtrodden Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller). He’s a powerful wizard and he’s angry: he doesn’t know who he is and just wants to find his parents.

Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) from "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"
Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) from “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Also in the mix are the complex Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), who is determined to gain control of Credence through emotional manipulation and Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) who has his own reasons for trying to find Credence before anyone else. Oh, and as an angry and powerful wizard, Credence is the perfect sidekick for Grindelwald, so he’s trying to lure Credence to his hiding place too. Basically everyone in the movie is trying to find Credence and swing him to their side (good guys, meet bad guys). In fact, the film could have been more accurately called Fantastic Beasts: The Search for Credence.

This quest quickly leaves America and moves to England and then to Paris, where the majority of the film takes place. Then again, since most of the scenes are inside random creepy buildings and cemeteries, it could be anywhere at all.

With the name “Fantastic Beasts” it’s no surprise that there are some requisite strange and interesting creatures, though the most interesting is the lithe young woman Nagini (Claudia Kim) who, as we know from the Potter series, is doomed to become a snake. I wanted more of her backstory, but she’s a fairly minor character in this installment.

Nagini (Claudia Kim) and Credence (Ezra Miller), from "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald"
Nagini (Claudia Kim) and Credence (Ezra Miller), from “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Which highlights the core problem: the characters that do live in the center of the story just aren’t very interesting. Hands down, the best character is the muggle Kowalski. He’s funny, charming, earnest, and absolutely could carry the film. Instead, he’s a dumb, easily tricked comic foil and has far too little screen time to give some heart and charm to this otherwise dark and heavy movie.

My theory is that the process of writing the various Potter books has helped Rowling find a good balance between the darkness of the good versus evil story and the hero’s journey of the protagonist. Even in the darkest of times, Harry was dating, dreaming about girls, playing pranks on his mates, complaining about homework and struggling through adolescence in a way every view could identify with, regardless of age.

By contrast, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the first film in the Potterverse that is completely without even a minor book as a starting point. An entirely new story in a half-baked universe, it’s heavy, lethargic, lacks the wit of even the first Fantastic Beasts film, and ultimately proves quite unsatisfying in its “wait for the next movie” ending. I really wanted to like this film as I’m a big fan of the original series, but the warning signs in the heavy Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them become a full-blown crisis in this new, dark, heavy and somewhat incomprehensible mess bursting at the seams with visual effects when it should have focused on the people, the charm and the heart of the potterverse.

Hardcore Harry Potter fans will love this regardless, because they’ll be so busy looking for clues about how it’s all going to feed into the original series. If that’s you, enjoy. Just don’t be too disappointed when the big surprises in the storyline prove to be quite a bit less than you hoped would be revealed.

Suitability for Little Children: If your kids are already Potter fans and enjoyed the later, darker movies in that series, they might well enjoy Grindelwald. It’s pretty heavy going, though, so it might be wise for you to see it first to decide if they’re ready for the tension, suspense and frightening monster scenes.

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