I don’t know what we’re doing anymore. I don’t know what this franchise is intended to be, who the intended audience for it is, or why this was a story that needed to be told. All I know is that I wasn’t entertained by Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
I should start by recapping my thoughts on Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, this film’s predecessor:
I caught the first entry in what’s intended to be a five-part series earlier this week, in preparation for the arrival of its sequel. I found it to be a charming, fun little jaunt back to the magical wizarding world of J.K. Rowling. It didn’t feel particularly necessary or illuminating for the Harry Potter mythology, and it also didn’t feel like the launch of something new and exciting. It was just kind of…there.
The main issue I had was its lead character, Newt Scamander.
As played by Eddie Redmayne, the character is sheepish, awkward, and hard to read. Which is cool, and Redmayne certainly has the talent to make a character like that brim with internal life and unique idiosyncrasies. But as the central figure in a story as big, fantastical, and far-flung as this, it just doesn’t work.
Stories like these almost require a lead character who acts as a stand-in for the audience. That person who looks at all of the wondrous things happening on screen with the same “What is going on? How do I fit into this?” POV that you, the audience member, would feel if put into this world. They become our “in” to the world of the movie, and to the machinations of the story being told within it.
That’s exactly the role that Harry Potter played in his series of books and movies- which is precisely why they worked so well.
In Fantastic Beasts, we’re saddled with a lead character who seemingly feels a lot…but shares none of it with us. The one character we can relate to, the one who’s shoes we can put ourselves into, is Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski. He’s the outsider who experiences the events of the film in much the same way as we would, and if this series was intended to be more of an ensemble experience than the Harry Potter series was, that could work.
You’d have Newt as our inscrutable, yet kind-hearted guide into this world of sorcery and surprises. You’d have Tina (Katherine Waterson) as the “straight man” and romantic foil to Newt. Then there’s Alison Sudol’s Queenie, who’s there both as comic relief and as Kowalski’s enchanting love interest. And you’d have the ever-important Kowalski as the lovable, relatable oaf.
With this foursome, and an intriguing overall plot established in Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I found myself intrigued by the potential of the stories this series would tell- even if I really wasn’t left all that hungry for more.
So those were my thoughts on the first Fantastic Beasts.
Its sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, opens with a bang. It’s a sequence I won’t spoil but can assure you that it’s the best the film has to offer, because it’s all downhill from there. We’re given a strong sense of what the villainous Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is capable of, and the way it’s staged is thrilling and filled with surprises.
What follows is a somewhat joyless ride, populated by characters with emotional centers that are kept at arm’s length. Everyone’s sad; Everyone’s longing; Everyone’s got a strong internal motivation they’re hesitant to express; and everything oh-so mysterious. But the problem with mysteries is that you have to have people involved who you actually care about. Otherwise there’s no real reason to be concerned with all of the questions being asked because you have no real skin in the game.
And they may have been able to create that sense of connection for the audience had they kept the ensemble dynamic from the first film alive. Instead, our core foursome is split apart, Kowalski is de-emphasized as our gateway into the wizarding world, and we’re left with the emotionally unavailable Newt as our sole protagonist.
It’s unfortunate, because the film does have some notable high points.
Depp is magnetic as Grindelwald, imbuing his somewhat generic motivations with enough verve and spontaneity to make you hang on his every word. Jude Law lights up the screen with the twinkle in his eye every time he appears as a young Albus Dumbledore, and it’s the films trips to visit him at Hogwarts that give it its few warm, winning moments.
There were certainly a few moments where I found a sequence or creature interesting, but they were few and far between.
All in all, I found the film to be a thankless voyage.
I was rarely invested in its characters, twists, or turns. While I could see some of its more high-minded themes (writer J.K. Rowling is definitely trying to make a statement about the current “populist” politics that are sweeping the world, and director David Yates uses costume colors in really poetic ways), I couldn’t shake a sense of boredom while watching the movie. And the whole thing is bogged down by a lack or urgency, since it’s clear the whole film centers on some of the earliest steps in what’s meant to be a five-part journey.
Poor Ezra Miller is given very little to do outside of looking pained, and his subplot- which intertwines with that of another major character- just feels convoluted instead of intriguing after a while. You get the sense that the big payoff to his story won’t arrive until the fourth or fifth film, which is fine if his path towards that climax is riveting. It isn’t.
And Zoe Kravitz doesn’t fare much better. She’s saddled with a character who, despite having a very mysterious backstory and a setup that goes back to the first film, seemingly gets less interesting with each minute of screen time. She’s ultimately revealed to have done something revolting. We’re left to figure out how we feel about the character, who’s more or less been a blank slate for two hours, before her arc is wrapped up in a way that left me going “Oh. Ok.” instead of “Wow! That was huge!”
In all, it’s hard to see what the point of this movie was, other than being the mandatory second installment in a corporate franchise. It moves the plot along just enough to justify its existence, but it does so without the charm and imagination of the first one- or that fueled the world’s love for Harry Potter.
If the point was to entertain or delight, it didn’t land with me. If it was to serve as some sort of broken mirror for the world we’re living in today, I suppose I was too bored and unimpressed with the characters and story to care about what it had to say.
As a side note, and not as knock on the film, I wish this series would’ve been a whimsical couple of films about a lovable, eccentric wizard and his adventures trying to discover and protect fantastic beasts- whom he relates to better than he does humans. That would’ve been fun. Instead, this has become a straight-up Harry Potter Prequel, and it’s filling in a backstory I never needed filled. So I guess I’m not the intended audience for this franchise, which is why I’ll most likely skip the rest of it.