They linger, skitter and roar; excite and intimidate. Their presence can be curious, and at times the absences of others are a relief. They have their own hierarchies, although at times clashes can break out for the worst.
When a film’s moniker bears the words “fantastic beasts,” it’s not an advantage when those above words describe its multitudes of plot threads as accurately as the extraordinary creatures conjured up for J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world.
Much like this universe’s beloved nifflers, powerful dragons or sassy bowtruckles, the various tidbits of story and exposition in the second installment of this “Harry Potter” prologue series are disparate, with their own ambitions and unpredictable tendencies rooted in a hunger for attention. Ultimately, it’s to the film’s detriment, though fans of the series would be hard-pressed to leave the theater not feeling a little enchanted simply on the merits of returning home to this universe. Increasingly, it feels like reuniting with an old, robed friend.
For all the prowess that J.K. Rowling, Novelist has adopted in forever carrying the burden of having told a once-in-a-generation story, molding the architecture of this magical world remains a strength for J.K. Rowling, Screenwriter. Developing the mythology of an event only alluded to in “Harry Potter,” however, does not.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is the second of a reported five movies supposedly focusing on the titular villain’s path of destruction and eventual downfall. And while the trend of blossoming a story into ever-expanding universes continues to be an infatuation of Hollywood’s, it’s clear through two “Beasts” movies that none of them feel as pre-ordained as this saga. Even Tony Stark had to walk before he could haul a WMD into the cosmos.
The roadmap is ostensibly clear for Rowling, director David Yates and Co. Whether we can fully appreciate, or even comprehend, what unfolds in “Crimes of Grindelwald,” though, remains to be seen until the arc is complete.
The primary reason for the incomplete grade: There’s not very much in this story that resembles resolution in any sense of the concept. Aja Romano said it best when she wrote in her review for “Vox” that the movie feels like a prologue to another, much more impactful story to come. It wouldn’t be so apparent if “Crimes” provided a rounded story that also served as rising action to whatever the inevitable climax is, but it also wouldn’t be so much of a nuisance if any of the various subplots weren’t as confounding as an O.W.L. exam you haven’t studied for.
This time around, magical creature caretaker Newt Scamander is tasked by a young Albus Dumbledore to follow Grindelwald after a bombastic and, really, pretty effortless escape from maximum security custody in New York City.
As is necessary, magical hijinks ensue, new characters are added to the carousel of returning ones and revelations are made, an ostensibly important one feigning melodrama at attempting to connect a famous lineage to an unsatisfying mystery. Meanwhile, a coup de gras in the closing moments doubles as a canonical tremor that makes us question if all the hoopla was worth an entire film.
At one point “Crimes of Grindelwald” comes across as being aware of its narrative lethargy. Our protagonists don’t necessarily arrive at the final confrontation of their own accord more than being simply caught up in Grindelwald’s best laid schemes. The story we thought we should care about, we’re told in the third act, actually doesn’t matter.
At best, it’s an admission that the spectacle is the focus of these movies; at worst, it’s as explicit a blockbuster movie can be in exclaiming, “Accio box office cash!”
“Fantastic Beasts’s” story is just messily conjured with few storytelling sparks, a product more evocative of Seamus Finnigan’s clumsy spellwork than Hermione Granger’s perfectionism, if the young wizard would forgive the comparison.
The performances, meanwhile, are delightful in spots and stiff in others. Eddie Redmayne continues to make the case that he was born to play the outcast Scamander, whose backstory is fleshed out a bit more here. Jude Law is undoubtedly a highlight as the young Albus, effortlessly making a case in limited time that he’s the most layered big-screen iteration yet of the great wizard. You get the sense he’s always a step ahead of his peers, even as we sympathize with his weaknesses.
And, whatever your preconceived notions of him are, Johnny Depp is appropriately vile as Grindelwald—someone lore tells us had a soul blacker than even Voldemort. We get a taste of it here, demonstrating his disregard for life while using his silver tongue to sway others into his cause. It’s one thing to use the Imperius Curse; it’s another terrifying sight entirely when magic folks join him of their own accord.
The strength of the first “Fantastic Beasts” entry lied on its introduction of darker themes, byproducts of the story spending most of its time in the world of Muggles. We saw that paranoia and discrimination among no-maj towards wizards and witches was rampant, and it evolved our view of the races that inhabit Rowling’s stories.
Disappointingly, those angles aren’t revisited very much in “Crimes of Grindelwald,” in political atmosphere where they might have been even more impactful. Of course, the job of fiction isn’t always to commentate on our realities, but with so many defending this series’ existence as infusing the infrastructure of the “Harry Potter” world with more adult stories, the absence of that sociological milieu was missed.
Filling that void is an ever-reliable constant: The sheer joy of how, where and when magic plays a part in this world, down to the subtle background details. It’s something these films have always accomplished not only well, but believably, and with this being director David Yates’ sixth trip back to this wizarding world, it’s basically second nature for the filmmaker.
But as this “Fantastic Beasts” series continues, it’s worth remembering the age of cinema it’s existing in. When “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” debuted 17 years ago, it showed fantastical worlds of the page can effectively translate to cinemas. CGI and green-screen technology was in its infancy, but the early Potter films made the most of it (along with coherent storytelling) to remain relevant over a decade later.
Now that the practice has matured, special effects and sequelitis have cast a spell over the box office. Franchises like “Transformers,” “Star Wars” and every damn MCU film have laid bare the priorities of audiences, and thus the agendas of studio executives.
In a moviegoing world in which cinematic universes, complicated lines of fealty and endless blockbuster pageantry are the norm, “Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t particularly stand out, and it’s difficult to recommend it as emphatically as one might have recommended “Sorcerer’s Stone” in 2001—in movie industry years, several epochs ago.
Whatever it is Rowling and Yates decide to do in the next three “Fantastic Beasts” movies, they would do well to ensure a franchise that used to be a standard-bearer doesn’t devolve into being a pallbearer at its own funeral. Making a movie with narrative impact that couldn’t otherwise be summed up in a few lines of exposition would be a start, especially if we’re promised an end to this five-film arc when the box office receipts for “Crimes” were a new low for the franchise.
Back to this film at face value, though. The beasts themselves – the initial promise of these films – are also a scrumptious highlight, much like the first film. But unlike it, the plot here isn’t beast-centric; they aren’t a focus at all, really. With so many other threads of story hogging the stage, they don’t individually have as much of a chance to shine. The story is elsewhere.
But in a prequel series that is in many ways darker than the “Harry Potter” films, their impact is sorely, sorely missed. Perhaps a bigger role for them would have helped with continuing to imbue these films with their own personality. Instead, what we get is a confounding story that lacks any impact – subplots which, by the film’s own admission, are only a means to an end – with little to demand our continuing investment in the “Fantastic Beasts” story. No matter what manner of nostalgic magic and beautiful mayhem ensues.
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is rated PG-13 for some sequences of fantasy action
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterson, Dan Fogler and Johnny Depp
Directed by David Yates