(2018—Director: David Yates)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
When pinpointing a defining pop culture staple for many kids born between the mid-1980s and the dawn of the new millennium, one need not look further than the bestselling Harry Potter fantasy novels by J.K. Rowling. Thanks to producer David Heyman, the books then became the defining film franchise of the 2000s. One cannot, however, say the same in full for the spinoff prequel series venture Fantastic Beasts, which borrows its title from an in-universe magizoology textbook for Hogwarts School students. Starting off from the mid-1920s, the spinoff prequel movies focus on the troubling rise of dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) and his impact on the wizarding world on either side of the Atlantic, all from the perspective of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the textbook’s eccentric young author.
From the start, I spared little optimism for this prequel spinoff series. I grew up reading the Harry Potter books—every now and then, I find myself re-reading the revelatory chapters in book seven, The Deathly Hallows—while watching the films was just as required for members of my generation. Overall, though, I remain more of a casual fan, slightly closer to the movies than to the novels (which makes sense for me). The first installment in the spinoff prequel series, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, is certainly whimsical and holds close to its pre-Depression New York City setting. Yet I still felt cold and skeptical towards J.K. Rowling’s choice, in her debut as a screenwriter, of the peripheral perspective of Newt Scamander rather than, say, a younger incarnation or a parent of any adult figure in the Harry Potter series. Souring my middling assessment of the 2016 film even further was its upset victory for the Best Costume Design Oscar over Jackie (an unheralded masterpiece—see here and here). Why did the voters have to choose that year to pivot all of a sudden from predictably awarding the “stuffy period piece” to throwing a Harry Potter-related movie a statuette for once after ignoring the eight previous movies (six, if you count those that got Oscar-nominated)?
Two years on and Fantastic Beasts unleashes its second entry, subtitled The Crimes of Grindelwald. Odd twists and turns infect and overstuff both the continuing story of Newt and his peers as well as the gradual introductions of more familiar Harry Potter figures. Re-entering the Wizarding World with a magizoology slant now settles in as a protracted, eighteen-year journey towards the inevitable duel between Grindelwald and Prof. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law).
Less than one year after the events of the first film, the detained charismatic dark wizard Grindelwald escapes during his transfer from New York to Europe. In London, Prof. Dumbledore secretly persuades Newt Scamander to travel to Paris to assist in the hunt for Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller, dour as ever), an orphaned obscurial (one with a destructive magical parasite) searching for his family. Grindelwald seeks to take in Barebone to help him defeat Dumbledore, his one true rival, and to advance his campaign of wizarding superiority over Europe and across the globe. Loyalties get tested as multiple parties converge onto Paris, forcing Newt to do the one thing he has always avoided in life—picking a side.
The Crimes of Grindelwald attracted many Harry Potter fans for including the dashing yet distinguished Jude Law as a younger Prof. Dumbledore. Yet for reasons revealed by movie’s end, Law’s Dumbledore only appears in four short-to-medium scenes. Instead, much of Crimes rotates through a humongous ensemble: Grindelwald and his cohorts, American auror Tina Goldstein (a disinterested Katherine Waterston, last seen in Mid90s), French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), Barebone with the cursed and snake-bound Nagini (Claudia Kim), Newt with a memory-restored Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) in tow, the lively yet heartbroken Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), and finally, Newt’s school crush Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), her fiancé and Newt’s older brother Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), and other British aurors.
Goodness, it is like Avengers: Infinity War all over again except…not good.
The Crimes of Grindelwald bafflingly packs two installments worth of story material into an episode taking place too soon after the previous one. It exhausts to keep track of most of the plot threads while watching them unfold at the hands of director David Yates. Worse yet, writer J.K. Rowling undoes one of the 2016 Fantastic Beasts’ more emotional moments with how it reintroduces Jacob Kowalski. She also features the brief appearance of a young adult-aged Prof. Minerva McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) eight years before her established birth year, before concluding with a stunning yet bizarre revelation foreign to Rowling’s existing Harry Potter books. Depp’s turn as Grindelwald functions as one of the film’s more tantalizing elements, though one will likely look towards Depp’s real-life controversies as the partial and indirect source of the menace he generates here. By the time Yusuf and Leta finish their backstory dump in a Parisian crypt, it is clear that Crimes has dug itself so needlessly into a deep hole that I question whether it will have the energy to see through to 1945.
When filmmakers return to a supplement a popular franchise, any fleeting excitement viewers express often stems from nostalgia. Peter Jackson, seven years after the critical and commercial success of adapting The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, indulged in his trilogy take on The Hobbit, a prequel novel shorter than any of the three Lord of the Rings installments. Excited audiences went hand-in-hand with much story and frame rate criticism, before everyone left the prequel trilogy in the rearview mirror at once. Solo: A Star Wars Story from earlier this year, despite its merits and manageable new elements, faced an unprecedented franchise backlash that Disney could not ignore and thus it suffered at the box office. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald will not meet that same fate, yet its weekend box office debut of $62.2 million in North America—the lowest so far for the Wizarding World—hints at a brewing fatigue.
With around six years to produce three movies covering eighteen more years (i.e., the Great Depression and World War II), producer Heyman, director Yates, writer Rowling, and the remaining cast and crew would do well to not leave their lucrative franchise on autopilot.
(Parental Note: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for some sequences of fantasy violence”. It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “moderate fantasy threat”, and rated A-II (Adults and adolescents) by the Catholic News Service for containing “much stylized bloodless violence, occult themes, some gruesome images, and a possible reference to homosexuality.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.