Fantastic Beasts: The Backstories of Literally Everyone.
I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter series (2001 – 2011) as well as the original books for as long as I can remember. I read the series multiple times, patiently waited for my Hogwarts acceptance letter to arrive by owl, and my mom even took me and my brother out of school to see the movies when they were released on opening day. That’s good parenting right there. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out that J.K. Rowling’s brilliant imagination would be continued on film in the form of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). While I enjoyed that first film, it wasn’t without its faults, faults which I had hoped would be rectified in the sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018). Spoiler, they were not.
In Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, magizoologist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne, travels to Paris on the word of a young Albus Dumbledore to apprehend the Obscurial Credence Barebone, before recently escaped dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald can exploit him for his own nefarious purposes. I mean, kind of. The plot is muddled to the point where it’s needlessly over-complicated and unsure about which of the many storylines or characters it should be following. For some reason, this just didn’t feel like a Harry Potter movie. Sure, if we’re splitting hairs it’s technically a “Wizarding World” movie (which I guess is a thing now?), but it’s hard to avoid comparisons to the original movies when this is essentially a prequel series. In Harry Potter, the stakes were incredibly high as danger ran rampant and Harry was a determined protagonist who actively tried to thwart Voldemort’s plans at every turn. In The Crimes of Grindelwald, the plot is surprisingly low-stakes, with the capture of the titular villain seeming like an after-thought to the movie’s heroes. Every character acts through their own motivations, none of which are really related to Grindelwald. They kind of stumble into the middle of the dark wizard’s plans, and more or less decide, “hey we’re here, might as well try and stop Grindelwald.” Our protagonist, Newt, doesn’t even come face-to-face with Grindelwald until the movie’s final scenes. Harry would have latched on to some crazy theory about Voldemort and tirelessly pursued it by the end of the first act. Hey, at least this series’ Dumbledore is equally as cryptic. More on him later.
The biggest problem with the plot is that it’s entirely happenstantial. Newt originally declines Dumbledore’s offer but ends up going to Paris anyway to pursue Tina Goldstein, his love interest who happens to be there with her sister Queenie. This also provides a reason for Queenie’s love interest and comedic relief, Jacob Kowalski, to tag along. The movie is driven by the plot way more than it is by the characters, which is saying something considering the enormous amount of time spent on them. Spending time on character development would normally be appreciated, but almost none of what we learn about the main characters is related to the plot. We get like six backstories stuffed into this two hour movie, to the point where it feels more like multiple character studies than a magical adventure. Ironically enough, the person I actually would have liked some backstory on, Nagini, played by Claudia Kim, is reduced to an almost silent role and is given nothing more to do than trail after Credence and be a fun callback for fans.
Speaking of characters, I need a moment to ponder the enigma that is Newt Scamander. For starters, I’m personally put-off by Eddie Redmayne and his odd acting choices. I’ve noticed that in every movie he’s in, he avoids eye contact, hunches over, stutters and smirks ever so slightly. What is that? Is that the only way he knows how to act? As for Newt Scamander, I was on board for a movie about a magizoologist enlightening us about all the fantastic beasts that inhabit the wizarding world, I really was. The first film gave us that but in this one, Newt’s presence feels forced. Dumbledore says that he chose Newt to help save the wizarding world because he’s not like other wizards and “does what is right.” That’s it. That’s why he’s our continued protagonist. You can just tell that the movie had to squeeze in rampaging magical creatures wherever and however it could just so Newt could appear to be useful. He just seems out of place and not nearly compelling enough to lead us through three more of these movies.
Johnny Depp’s presence in this movie is a mixed bag. As Grindelwald, he delivers the type of menacing performance that’s exactly what you’d expect from him. While he was perfectly fine, I found myself silently wishing this role could have been played by anyone else. It’s just…aren’t we slightly over Johnny Depp? I mean, is there no young up-and-comer to take on all of Hollywood’s “pale, weird man in outlandish clothes with a funny voice” roles? It’s not like Jude Law as Dumbledore. When it was first revealed that he would be playing the future Hogwarts headmaster I genuinely thought it was a stroke of brilliant casting. Turns out, I was right. Law brings the right amount of fire and playfulness that is needed to play the iconic wizard, clearly having done his research as to how best leave his mark on a role that has already been played to perfection by Richard Harris and Michael Gambon. Depp it would seem, did little to no research. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed his performance, it just seems like, “generic villain,” y’know? Kinda, “been there done that.” It’s made all the less spectacular when Grindelwald’s motivations for villainy are never made clear, but hey, maybe one of the three sequels will shed some light on that. I reiterate, three more sequels. Hopefully three more chances to make a prequel that honours its source material while still managing to do emoting unique and original. I’m not asking for much am I? Also, what are Grindelwald’s actual crimes? Escaping custody and fear-mongering? He doesn’t do much else.
While the visual effects look better than ever and the cast is likeable enough in their roles, I still felt that this latest adventure in the wizarding world lacked some of the wonder, fun, and well, magic, that we’ve come to associate with Rowling’s work. Though it’s sure to pleasantly entertain any Potter fan and the powerful ending will undoubtedly leave you gobsmacked, this movie ultimately felt like filler to me. Don’t turn on me reader, but it really reminded me of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016): A pleasurable enough two hours although you get the feeling that the movie is meant to be a checklist of sorts, preparing you for everything that is to come in later, more fulfilling sequels.
Are you a Harry Potter fan? Were you pleased or disappointed by The Crimes of Grindelwald?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!