REVIEW – “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

cog-posterI loved the first Fantastic Beasts movie. I thought it was one of the best, if not the best, movies in the Wizarding World franchise. It definitely helped that that movie wasn’t, strictly speaking, based on any preexisting story and could really be its own thing. It introduced a lot of new and interesting characters and opened the Wizarding World up in new and exciting ways. Plus it set up a pretty cool plotline for a series of films: the rise and fall of Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the big, evil wizard before Voldemort was the big, evil wizard. So, naturally, I’ve been pretty excited for this film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, to come out. The big question is: could it live up to two years worth of hype and excitement? The answer is: yes, and no. (There will be mild spoilers for the film in this review.)

At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

newt in caseI wanna make it clear upfront that I didn’t hate this movie. I didn’t even really dislike it. Honestly, if it weren’t for the fact that this was a movie I waited two years to see and will have to wait another two years to see the next one, I’d love it. But, with all of that in mind, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t just a little bit disappointing. This film is one of those films where a lot of stuff happens but, simultaneously, very little happens. The whole movie is, essentially, one long chess game where Grindelwald moves all the various characters around the board in order to get them all to converge in the graveyard in the climax of the film. This movie is very much a movie that’s trying to set up the rest of the series. It’s all exposition and little action. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that as it does free up the remaining three films to get to the action a bit quicker, but it does feel like a bit of a let down after the previous film, which also felt like a lot of setup for the rest of the series. All that being said, I don’t think this film is the trainwreck that many critics are playing it out to be. I liked it well enough, but I totally understand why a lot of people aren’t digging it so much. The film has quite a few problems.

grindelwald with crowdThe first of those is the sheer number of characters it tries to cram within its frames. For a film that’s called The Crimes of Grindelwald, we see remarkably little of Grindelwald or his crimes. In fact, we see so little of this titular villain that it’s still hard to say whether or not Johnny Depp is actually doing a good job at portraying him. I will say that his performance in this movie is better than it was in the first film, in that it doesn’t quite feel so clownish and over-the-top and there are actually a few moments of nuance and charisma that go a long way toward convincing me that so many people might actually become followers of his, but he’s not really given a whole lot to do. The film opens with a pretty exciting sequence that shows how he escaped from MACUSA custody, but from there we see him sporadically as he stalks around Paris talking to some of his underlings and pulling all the strings in order to get all our main characters to the graveyard at the end of the film, where he’ll be conducting his first big rally since escaping from jail. Depp is really good in that scene as he speaks to the large audience of wizards and witches that have gathered to see him. He nails that thing that politicians do where they’re lying but they’re also really charismatic and convincing about their lies. Many in the press have compared Depp’s Grindelwald to Donald Trump and it’s a pretty apt comparison. Depp is very good in that scene and Grindelwald utilizes a number of tricks that do a good job at convincing a lot of the gathered characters to join him. His performance definitely sells me on Grindelwald’s ability to gather a following.

grindelwald and rosierMost of Grindelwald’s core group of acolytes are largely forgettable and interchangeable. Early on in the film, we learn that Abernathy (Kevin Guthrie), an employee at MACUSA from the first film, has joined Grindelwald’s forces as he helps Grindelwald escape custody. He joins Rosier (Poppy Corby-Tuech), a woman who seems to be Grindelwald’s second-in-command; Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), a bounty hunter hired by the British Ministry of Magic to kill Credence (Ezra Miller) who joins Grindelwald’s cause; and a whole bunch of others who never do or say much (MacDuff (Andrew Turner), Carrow (Maja Bloom), Krafft (Simon Meacock), Krall (David Sakurai), Nagel (Claudius Peters)). Abernathy and Rosier are the only ones who do anything worthwhile in the film, and even then the two of them only help Grindewald escape, switch some records in the French Ministry of Magic, and get Queenie (Alison Sudol) to meet Grindelwald. Other than that, they seem to just exist as people Grindelwald can monologue exposition at. Again, this isn’t inherently bad, but all of these characters could have been condensed into one or two so we could have actually gotten to know them a little bit.

nagini and credenceMuch like the first Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald is largely about Credence. Unlike that film, Credence is not in this film a whole lot. The plot revolves around Credence as all the main characters are pretty much searching for him to either save him, kill him, or convert him. We find him in a magical circus in Paris – how he got there, we aren’t told – where he’s met Nagini (Claudia Kim), a Maledictus (a person with a blood curse that causes them to turn into a snake, eventually being unable to turn back into a human) who is one of the circus acts. The two of them break out of the circus and set out to find out who Credence’s parents are. We see remarkably little of their search, though. He finds a woman named Irma (Danielle Hugues), a servant whose name is on Credence’s adoption papers, but she turns out not to be his mother but someone who worked for his family. The next time we see Credence is when he gets properly invited to Grindelwald’s rally about 2/3 into the movie, and then the next time we see him is at the graveyard at the top of the climax where we start the long process of finding out who he is (more on that climax shortly). Again, for a movie that’s essentially about Credence, he’s in very little of it and has maybe twenty lines. And Nagini fares even worse. There’s literally no reason for her to be in this film. She has a total of five lines or so, no character arc, and does very little to help Credence along his journey. Literally, anything she helps him with is something he could have done by himself and she’s largely window dressing for his story. For all the controversy that this character (and the casting of her) caused, you’d have thought the film would have used her more. I’m sure she’ll be in future sequels and I really hope that her story is actually given some importance because, in this film, she’s entirely pointless and forgettable.

newt and theseusOur fore core characters from the previous film – Newt, Tina (Katherine Waterstone), Queenie, and Jacob (Dan Fogler) – are back in this one. Jacob is pretty much only there for comic relief as he’s given little to do outside of his relationship with Queenie, but she gets all the interesting stuff from that relationship. Tina, similarly, is given very little to do. She’s gone off to Paris to find Credence and believes that Newt is engaged to Leta (because some magazine misprinted that he was engaged to her instead of Theseus, his brother, being engaged to her). She meets Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), a mysterious man distantly related to Corvus Lestrange who is searching for Credence. Towards the beginning of the film, Dumbledore asks Newt to go to Paris to find Credence as Dumbledore can’t act against Grindelwald. Newt initially refuses, but after Queenie and Jacob arrive at his house and reveal the whole Tina-thinks-he’s-gonna-marry-Leta thing, he’s quick to rush off to Paris in order to set that right. Upon getting to Paris, Newt quickly finds Yusuf and ends up reunited with Tina shortly thereafter. From there, the bulk of Tina’s storyline is just her interactions with Newt. Outside of this relationship drama with Newt, Tina does very little in the film and, honestly, could probably have been totally absent from it without much of anything changing. Newt probably has the best character arc of anyone in the film, which is nice as I really like the character. Queenie’s arc is pretty decent, too, but it would have benefited from a few more scenes featuring her struggling to pick a side. I just wish that Tina or Jacob had gotten something to do, too.

kama, tina, leta, and newtAs for the plot of this film, it’s fine. I don’t quite understand why so many people got so confused by the film; the plot isn’t particularly hard to follow. Everyone is looking for Credence and all of their clues lead them to the graveyard featured in the climax. It gets a bit messy solely because we’re trying to follow a whole lot of characters. But, even then, most of our focus is on Newt, Tina, and Jacob and their journey to the climax isn’t particularly difficult to unravel. As for that climax, it’s… weird. It begins with everyone arriving at the Lestrange mausoleum. There, Yusuf Kama explains to the group who he is, why he thinks Credence is Corvus, and why he’s been searching for Credence. This is done through a mixture of narration and flashback sequences. Then, Leta explains that Credence is not Corvus because she (accidentally) killed Corvus when they were children by switching Corvus with another baby (Credence) on a boat. Leta and Credence survived while Corvus drowned. This, too, is told via a mixture of narration and flashback sequences. And, to be frankly honest, this isn’t something that really works on film. This kind of exposition dump of a scene is something that works great at the end of a whodunnit book. While this movie is essentially a whodunnit film, it’s still a film and, as such, that kind of long monologue that explains everything just doesn’t really work well. Everything grinds to a halt for this exposition dump and then we’re swept up into Grindelwald’s rally. The rally seems to go well until Theseus and a bunch of other Aurors arrive to break it up. One of the Aurors ends up killing one of Grindelwald’s followers which causes everything to break into chaos as Grindelwald points out that the Ministry are the violent ones, not him. It’s here where we realize that pretty much everything that’s happened in the film was Grindelwald baiting the characters into his trap. I won’t go into any more specifics about the climax other than to say that from the beginning of the rally through the end of the final fight, it’s pretty awesome. The actions scenes are great and we see the culmination of Queenie’s, Credence’s, and Leta’s arcs, such as they were. The film ends with Newt confronting Dumbledore with a vial his Niffler stole from Grindelwald that proves that Dumbledore and Grindelwald made a blood pact that they wouldn’t fight each other and with Grindelwald revealing Credence’s identity to him. As to who Credence is… I won’t spoil that. But I will say that it’s hard to judge whether that twist is good or not without seeing how future installments handle it.

leta and grindelwaldAnd that’s really the biggest problem with this movie. It’s hard to judge it without seeing the rest of the series. This film is very much an in-between kind of movie. Its sole existence is to set up the rest of the series, laying the groundwork for plot threads we’ll follow over the next three films and starting our main characters on the journeys that we’ll see them take. The problem is that the movie never really takes the time to tell a standalone story. To be fair, the movie isn’t really trying to tell a standalone story, so it’s hard to be mad at it for not doing so, but I just don’t think this kind of storytelling works very well for films. As I said earlier, if this were a season of a TV show – with a bunch of episodes where Rowling could have expanded on the plots and character arcs of this film over the course of several hours – I’d have loved it. There are so many interesting ideas, characters, and stories in this film that it’s a shame that none of them are ever really given enough time to shine. In general, I feel like the Fantastic Beasts series would be better as a TV series or a book series. So many of my problems with this film would have been solved if it could have just been a longer story. Rowling keeps bringing so many great ideas to these films, but films just don’t have enough space for a bunch of subplots and characters with equal importance. Sometimes you have to pick and choose and I wish that there was someone helping Rowling better format these stories for films. She’s currently still writing these screenplays as though they’re one of her novels, but a lot of what she writes in her novels doesn’t really work so well on screen. This film does a better job with finding a central plot to follow than the previous film did, but it struggles heavily with featuring so many characters that most of them can’t get enough screen time to feel important or worthwhile. I’m interested in seeing if there are any deleted scenes on the DVD as it definitely felt like there were some scenes that were missing that might have smoothed out some of the problems I had with the film. I’d just be curious to see what was cut and what impact restoring that footage to the film might have on it.

dumbledoreOverall, I did like this movie quite a bit. The pros do far outweigh the cons for me. All the things that are set up in this film really excite me and I like the direction the story seems to be going. Some of it is hard to judge without having seen the rest of the series, but I’m very much interested and excited in seeing where it goes, so in that respect, the film did its job. I wish there had been fewer characters in the film so that the story could have focused on just a core group of them and really given them all the chance to have some development and a good amount of screen time. As it is, a bunch of the characters in this movie felt totally unneeded. If this story had been told over the span of six-ten hours, those characters could have been beefed up to the point where their importance to the story made sense, but in the span of a two-hour movie, there were just too many characters without enough to do. All the actors in the movie were good, even if a lot of them weren’t given a whole lot to do. Visually, the film is beautiful. David Yates’ directing worked pretty well for me, though I am starting to wish we could get another director into this series just so they could change things up a bit. Yates’ style has felt very stale to me for a long time, but I will grant that he did pretty well with this film. All qualms about characters aside, the film is paced really well. Everything moves along at a pretty steady pace and ratchets up in intensity toward the end of the film as we reach the climax. Information is doled out in sensible amounts of time and while we’re left with far more questions than answers, I do feel like the film addressed and built upon plot threads that were left open from the previous film. All in all, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a really flawed film. It’s more interested in setting up future installments than it is with standing on its own. That’s fine, but it does make for a slightly disappointing experience when you’ve waited two years since the last film to see this continuation only for the continuation to still be setting things up for a film you’re gonna have to wait another two years to see. The closest film (from 2018) that I can compare this to is Avengers: Infinity War. That movie wasn’t particularly interested in being a standalone story either and it still worked well. I think Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald works well enough for what it’s trying to be. It’s not as great as it should have been, but it’s still pretty good. It’s not the best Wizarding World film but it’s not the worst either (that honor still goes to Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince). It was an enjoyable film that I’ll definitely watch again and again and it’s absolutely got me interested in the next film. So that’s a positive. Plus, I liked it more than I liked Infinity War.

3.5 out of 5 wands.

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