6 out of 10
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander
Directed by David Yates
Fantastic Beasts – The Crimes of Grindelwald Review:
What happens when you take a beloved generation defining epic and attempt to craft a new story for it delving into the original’s deep backstory? History says the odds aren’t good for creating a self-sustaining piece of entertainment (take note Game of Thrones spin-off producers). But history is also replete with exceptions to the rules. Theoretically it should be possible for a prequel to dance over the mire of fan service and clumsy story arc welding to create something that stands on its own. So how does Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald fare?
Mire, miles and miles of mire. And in the center of it all is Grindelwald (Depp) himself, the evil wizard captured in the first Fantastic Beasts who quickly escapes and returns to his plans for a revolt to subjugate the entire world under wizard control. But also in the center is mischievous Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Albus Dumbledore (Law) attempting to contain Grindelwald but refusing to move against him openly despite being admittedly the greatest wizard in the world. Instead he relies on the magical creature lover Newt Scamander (Redmayne), sending him to Paris to search for Grindelwald, as well as his friends Tina and Queenie Goldstein (Waterson and Sudol) who have disappeared searching for the reincarnated magical menace Credence Barebone (Miller). Which is lucky because his old American compatriot Jacob (Fogler) has recovered his memories of Queenie and wants to find her. But doing so puts Newt in the crosshairs of his old paramour Leta Lestrange (Kravitz) …
…and on and on and on. So many characters. So little time. Grindelwald has a lot of irons in the fire from the last film, while also attempting to set up the next part of the story and keep everything moving. The end result feels less like a film and more like the penultimate episode of a TV season, building up to a big finale, but in the meantime a lot of pieces need to be moved into place. It’s an overwhelming requirement which tramples over every other part of the film; there is just too much being required of the film and not enough time to do it all. Characters disappear for extended periods, popping back up again only for specific plot requirements. Besides so many returning friendly faces from the previous film Grindelwald dumps a heap more onto the mess, playing into the theme of choosing sides. But choosing sides means we need enough people to fill out both teams. If Grindelwald is about anything, it is about that.
There are still a lot of good bits. This is director David Yates’ sixth film in the franchise; he can do this sort of thing in his sleep by now. It’s glib to say that it feels like he is, but that doesn’t change the fact that it feels like he is. More importantly, his arrival on the series showcased a gradual drop in the amount of whimsy involved and when it does appear it seems spectacularly out of place. With his deep shadows, aversion to primary colors and hand-held camera work Fantastic Beasts wants to make the magical feel real, a desire frequently at odds with itself. As a result tone is all over the place. A scene full of dark foreboding featuring Depp’s Grindelwald smoking from a skull in order to see the future will be followed immediately by Redmayne’s Scamander playing with one of his whimsical animals. Is this a light adventure full of fun moments for all ages, or a dark fantasy delving into the depths of human evil? No one knows.
Law makes an engaging Dumbledore, simultaneously of a piece with the other takers of the role while also making it firmly his own. His complex relationship with Grindelwald is one of the few pieces of the film which creates the sort of high melodrama the film seems to aspire to. [Compared to that, though, Newt and his undercooked star-crossed romance with Tina suffers terribly.]
Would a change of director matter, though? It’s hard to say, with so much of what the new movies are trapped within its creator’s requirements. One of Rowling’s great strengths as a writer has been her way with a MacGuffin. Each of her Harry Potter stories (even the ones that may not have needed it) revolved around a mystery that needed unraveling, one which would eventually tie into both its main character(s) and the larger story they were involved in. If nothing else it kept pages turning, kept audiences wrapped up in discovering the answer, and usually providing a framework for all the other pieces to be latched onto.
Fantastic Beasts, not content with just one mystery, has at least a half dozen – one for each major character. Where is Tina and what is she doing? Who has Queenie and what has happened to her? Who is Credence’s real family? What happened to Leta’s brother Corvus? How is it all connected to the mysterious Yusuf Kama (Nadylam)? Why can’t Dumbledore face Grindelwald directly? These are all interesting character developments and the way they point towards a joint theme of the weight past choices can have on the future is potentially compelling but needs time and focus to be developed and both are in short supply. That problem doesn’t stop Rowling or her compatriots from dropping ever more into the story – an army of quislings for Grindelwald replete with interesting names and looks but not much else, Newt’s officious older brother, the cursed Nagini who turns out to have been a witch before she was a snake, the oft-mentioned but never seen alchemist Nicholas Flamel – much of it aimed at the series considerable fan base but incomprehensible to anyone else. This is nowhere more noticeable than the final minutes which plays as if all we know about the series has been turned on its head but instead leaves nothing but question marks. [It’s still unclear what Kravitz was meant to be doing in her last scene].
What Fantastic Beasts desperately needs is an editor (or a director) with the ability to streamline Rowling’s imagination and fashion it into a single, comprehensible story. Instead it’s got a craftsman, one who can serve a story up but not necessarily make it watchable.