By Bill Mazzola
November 18, 2018
J.K. Rowling’s magical (and profitable) pre-Harry Potter Wizarding World expands both visually and story-wise in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The enchanting film is, as usual, rife with strange new beasts and incredible visual flair but it becomes somewhat cluttered with an abundance of new storylines set to fuel the franchise for three more films. Rowling the screenwriter is lucky to have Potter veteran David Yates directing his sixth Potterverse film, because, whenever her packed screenplay threatens to bog down the film, Yates’ distinct visual panache rescues it from ever becoming well…non-magical.
Where did we leave off since the last entry? Glad you asked. In the previous Fantastic Beasts movie, Hogwart’s resident animal expert, Newt Scamander (played once again with a squinty, hard to understand, mumbling charm by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne) helped capture the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) who was causing mischief and mayhem in New York City. But as we all knew as soon as we saw Depp’s signature visage on the screen a few years ago, the creepy Grindelwald wasn’t going to stay locked up for long; and after The Crimes of Grindelwald opens with a thrilling escape sequence, good old Gellert is free once again.
Grindelwald uses his newfound liberty to get up to his old pure-blood espousing tactics again, complete with foot stomping pro-pure-blood rallies. If you’re seeing Trump allusions here, you’re not wrong. Depp, uber-creepy with his platinum blonde hair and mismatched eyes, is clearly loving his role, playing Grindelwald as sort of an anti-Jack Sparrow, subdued and menacing throughout. What is the wizarding world to do with this unquestionably Nazi-ish threat? Our familiar hero, Newt, gets a visit from young, snappily dressed Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) who gives Newt a mission – go to Paris and take care of this Grindelwald menace. This presents a challenge for Newt, who chafes at being caught up in the world of wizardly politics, much too morally questionable for someone of Newt’s disposition. More to the point, Newt doesn’t like to choose sides – and he can feel the walls closing in. Nevertheless, we all know he’s going to end up in Paris hunting down Grindelwald, and that’s what he does. That Dumbledore is a charming rogue.
But that’s where things threaten to get a bit murky. Rowling has the triple task of making an exciting film, dropping in enough Potter easter eggs to excite the Potterverse, and teeing up three more films in the franchise. The sheer amount of all of this exposition threatens to bog the movie down.
Take a deep breath, everyone, because there’s a ton of story in this movie. Newt’s brother, Theseus (Calum Turner), is newly engaged to Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), Newt’s one-time school crush. In addition, Newt has somewhat reluctantly assembled his scooby-gang from the first film, which includes wizard hunter and possible love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her heavily accented sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who’s both a telepath and the lady love of Newt’s hilarious Muggle friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). The discovery of the believed dead Credence Barebone (a very EMO Ezra Miller) also muddies the waters. Barebone’s parentage ends up being the plot device at the center of the movie – and boy oh boy when his familial tree is made manifest, without spoiling– that reveal is sure to polarize the very vocal Potterverse.
On top of that, Potter fans will rejoice at the return to Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and the long-awaited opportunity to see young professor Dumbledore teaching students and dealing with the interference of the ministry of magic. The relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald has been a hot button topic for years, and Crimes is arguably at its best when exploring all of the mythology that has only been hinted at so far. Whew, got all that?
Clearly, there’s a lot going on. Honestly, too much at times. There are moments where the film seems to be intent on worldbuilding and exposition without any actual narrative. A few times it seems there was a lot going on, but very little actually happening. Additionally, the introduction of both Grindelwald and Dumbledore as main players at times overwhelms our would-be main character Newt Scamander to the point where he seems less like a hero and more of a bystander. This is where the film greatly benefits by having a Potterverse veteran like David Yates behind the camera. He has become very adept at crafting, for lack of a better word, a magical environment for these films to exist in. The visual effects have come a long way, even since the last Harry Potter film, and Yates’ visual flair combined with the charisma of the cast go a long way toward rescuing the film when it starts to crumble under its own weight.
Whether you’re an experienced magic user or a rookie Muggle, you’ll need a glossary and a map to negotiate the number of storylines and developments going on here. But, at the end of the day, JK Rowling’s imagination and gift for storytelling shines through. It sputters at times, but there is enough magic left in Rowling’s wand to keep the franchise engine running.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5