Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review: Obliviate Wonder
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review: The second chapter in the continued milking of the Harry Potter franchise continues.
The Harry Potter franchise will probably never die. Warner Bros. knows the love people have for J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, so the odds are the studio will find a way to continually milk it until it is exhausted – and then it will wait a few years and reboot the original stories as a TV show or a new series of movies. It’s pretty much inevitable.
So with that certainty looming, it’s something of a relief that the current batch of Potter-esque movies, the Fantastic Beast series, is at least avoiding the Lucasfilm strategy of creating stories that retell the same story from a different angle. No one needs to know how Rita Skeeter got her start or where the Goblet of Fire was before its appearance at Hogwarts – some things are better left to the imagination. Lucasfilm has since modified that strategy, slightly, but as long as there is a really popular franchise, there will potentially be prequels.
I have made no secret of my deep, unyielding hatred of prequels. If I were to write an article titled “My Favorite Prequel Movies,” it would be the shortest thing I’ve ever written, since it would be empty. At best, prequels can slightly and often unnecessarily extend a story, at worst, they can retroactively make the original properties worse. The only real exceptions to this are the films that at least partially ignore the originals (the new Planet of the Apes series, X-Men: First Class, Casino Royale) or present themselves as earlier entries in an ongoing series (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Godfather Part II, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).
Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did not change my mind about prequels. If anything, it reinforced them.
Despite taking place decades before the Dursleys dabbled in child abuse, The Crimes of Grindelwald not only threatens to burn the Harry Potter continuity, it makes the property something different, something darker and vicious. It also seems to ignore at least part of what made the original series popular in the first place.
The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up in 1927, a year after the events of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, with the dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) about to be extradited to Europe to answer for his crimes. For some reason, the American Magical Congress of the United States of America (which is now listed as the American Ministry of Magic for no real reason) and its European counterpart choose to fly him across the Atlantic rather than using one of the dozens of other, cool magical means. Grindelwald escapes and begins to recall and recruit followers in an effort to take over the world, magical and muggle alike.
While this is happening, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is back in London, taking care of some fantastic beasts of his own. The events of the previous film had consequences for him though, and even when his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) and Newt’s soon to be sister-in-law/former love-interest Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) offer him a chance to essentially have a blank slate, it sets of a series of events that forces a reluctant Newt back into action.
Joined by his muggle friend Jacob (Dan Fogler), who arrives and quickly invalidates one of the more impactful moments of the last film, and the legilimens Queenie (Alison Sudol), Newt heads to Paris to track down his possible new love-interest and freshly minted Auror Tina (Katherine Waterson).
As you would expect, The Crimes of Grindelwald has plenty of nods to the original series. Lots of familiar places and names are dropped into the mix, some as part of the overall plot, others as a nod to the hardcore fans of the series that will get a little thrill out of seeing a character that may go on to become the grandfather of a minor character from the books.
If you are a big, BIG fan of the originals, there may be enough to carry you through the film. If you’re looking for a compelling story and a great film in its own right, well… mixed results.
The Crimes of Grindelwald marks the sixth excursion into the Potterverse for director David Yates, and he definitely has a specific style. To Yates, the magic always seems to be secondary, which means the wonder of it all is second too. It also doesn’t really feel like a magical world, but rather a world where magic is sometimes present. The magic isn’t so much under the skin of the real world, as it is in the original books and early movies), it is present more in pockets. And it feels more workman-like that wonderous.
Yates also has a semi-distinctive visual style that may appeal to some, but not all. His films are slightly muted and colors are often neutral or just dull. That may be a deliberate choice to help make certain things like fire dragons and spectral cats stand out, but the result is a subdued feel. It was present in Yates’s earlier Potter films, and it’s present in his Fantastic Beast films. He also mixes in some bizarre close-ups that are meant to connect with certain characters along with the occasional shaky cam, and it ends up just looking weird.
There are probably essays about what makes Harry Potter so appealing, but part of it has to be the joy inherent in the world on display. The final book is darker than the rest, but the series as a whole is filled with ideas, incidents, and magic that makes people wish they were part of that world. The Fantastic Beasts series doesn’t do that. It’s a dark and brutal world, where Harry Potter goes gritty.
The original series was famous for maturing along with its characters (and its readers), but Fantastic Beasts is often just bleak. Wizard cops murder people, dark wizards make convincing arguments about why muggles are garbage, powerful magic-users essentially rape women, slavery is alive and well… the list goes on and on. Some of it makes life with the Dursleys sounds delightful by comparison.
But even if you’re willing to put all of that aside, the film has plenty of technical issues. Plot threads occasionally fly by and hijack the flow, then disappear just as quickly. Major points – even a few holdovers from the last film – are hinted at, then go unanswered and even unexplored. There’s also very little to counterbalance it. The love story is almost an afterthought (and it’s muddled by an unexplored love-triangle anyway), and there’s very little humor.
Some of that you can blame on the editing, so is the fault of the script. And the film ends with a twist that could rewrite big chunks of Harry Potter-lore (if it’s true).
With all of that said, the film is still part of the Potterverse. It expands on one of the most successful franchises ever made, and features characters and families that are already established, and in many cases beloved. If this were an original series, it would be mediocre. But given that it’s built on Harry Potter, it has a huge head start because of that.
The cast is also incredibly strong. Redmayne’s performance is original, unique, and compelling, even endearing. Waterhouse and Kravitz both do a lot with what they are given (despite the film ignoring plotlines that should have been better addressed), while Law and Fogler both shine in their scenes. The only suspect performance is Depp, who continues a trend of phoning it in. He’s fine, but never the scene-stealer the role could be in different hands.
I’m also ignoring the retcon of dates and times mentioned in the books. Hardcore Potter fans will have to do the same.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Review Conclusion
The Crimes of Grindelwald is a prequel, with all the good and bad that goes with that. It’s set far enough in the past that there isn’t an immediate connection like most prequels, but there are enough ties that the new series can’t help but influence the original – and not in a good way.
Putting that aside, the film still has plot and editing issues, it looks like it needs a good color filter, and it drops a bomb on Potter continuity. It does have some nice fan service though, the VFX are as good as any film out, and the acting is good. How the series is remembered may come down to the final film in the trilogy (assuming they don’t split in two), but it isn’t looking great.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is rated PG-13 with a running time of 134 minutes.