While I was unable to attend, I was approved as press for the premiere Harry Potter convention, LeakyCon, earlier this year in Dallas, Texas. The event marked its first time in America, fitting as it follows Fantastic Beasts (And Where To Find Them), a film that opened the Wizarding World created by J.K. Rowling up beyond the primary setting of England. While a trip to that convention would have been amazing I’m sure, I did review the schedule of events, and it was eye-opening, to say the least. I couldn’t believe the subject matter and amount of panels at the event. To say the fans are passionate is far to small a word! I know that the inquisitive and obsessive nature of fans opens up any series to an ever expanding sea of fan creativity and representation. Star Wars did this in its early days through fan fiction, and it broadened and continues to broaden the mythos through the divisive prequels and Disney films. Harry Potter was a phenomenon to itself, and these Fantastic Beasts films exclusively serve to continue that. The fan base proves to me that they want more, more, more, and these films continue that. Depending on where you fall on your level of enjoyment or franchise fatigue on all things “wizard”, the fact that this newest film is the second of five(?!?) will produce either cheers or groans.
As my review of the first film said, I was late to the party with that film, missing it in theaters entirely. I didn’t repeat that mistake with this newest film, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and I watched it opening night. In this film, we pick up not long after the conclusion of the first, and Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is being sent to Europe to answer for his many crimes. A movie following him alone in a jail cell wouldn’t have much momentum, so as any trailer will indicate, that is not the case. His escape propels the Ministry of Magic to take the necessary steps in securing his capture. That includes trying to enlist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to the cause of dealing with Grindelwald and helping to find the recently resurfaced Obscurial, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) in Paris, France. He has no use for such things; he only wishes to travel the world and study magical creatures, leaving divisive conflicts to others. Newt’s old teacher, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), may be the only one who can defeat Grindelwald, but old ties to the dark wizard complicate the possibility of him doing so. While not able to directly involve himself, he is able to persuade Newt to go to Paris; Newt’s journey in the film brings him back together with his “No-Maj” friend, Jacob (Dan Fogler), the sisters, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Queenie (Alison Sudol), and allow us to meet his brother, Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), his fiance, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), the mysterious Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), and a former circus performer, Nagini (Claudia Kim). A changing world affects all and their relationships, and beyond his magic, Grindelwald’s power proves in the persuasion of his worldview, pitting wizards superior to all in a new world order. By film’s end, all the characters we knew and all the many we meet will be forced to pick a side in the coming conflict.
If just my brief recollection of new characters sounds intimidating, wait until you see how all of this fits together! I can say, without question, this is one of the most convoluted tentpole films I’ve ever seen. I believe I have a fairly firm grasp on the broad strokes of the Wizarding World, but here, I felt I should be taking notes. The film honestly doesn’t have a main plot, so much as it is a collection of subplots with some having little to do with others. Granted, with a populace comfortable with the concept of binge-watching their entertainment, many may not have a big problem with a film existing solely in relation to a larger multi-film narrative; still, it did prove a problem for me here, as we can’t just watch the next film immediately. Something has to prove satisfying as an experience right now in this entry, and very little did that here. While I felt that there was plenty of world-building in the first film, there was an overall balance with it all, amidst a central plot. Here, we catch up with old characters, meet a ton of new ones, and find out the complicated ways in which many of them are connected (or not connected). I was compelled throughout, so it all isn’t a total loss, but by film’s end, I felt I had watched a filler episode in a season binge-watch that will take nearly a decade to complete. That isn’t something I often can say of a big-budget blockbuster film, and I hope it isn’t a sign of things to come beyond this franchise.
One thing that I loved about the first film was how it felt different, being set in America. There was incredible personality the film had because of it. That doesn’t continue here, sadly. The film is primarily set in Paris, but if you couldn’t tell, I wouldn’t fault you. Aside from seeing the Eiffel Tower in the background and a quick segment involving a Parisian circus, there is little to distinguish the setting here in the film, even though the era-appropriate art-deco look continues to impress. The plan I read at one point is for each Fantastic Beasts to have a distinct look and feel, and I hope that proves true beyond this, because not much came across as distinctive here. That said, from a visual standpoint, the creatures were great. I especially loved the Chinese dragon and smiled every second it was on-screen. My favorite things in all of Potterdom might be Nifflers, and they (yes, they!!!) return and prove great importance. An early creature-care sequence with Newt was a highlight for me, and I’m afraid as this series continues, we will get further from these aspects, as a larger plot more connected to the Harry Potter saga comes to the forefront. This film doubles down on connections to those stories with surprise characters shown or discussed in those stories here in surprising ways, as well as many scenes in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There’s a closing-moments story revelation made that produced gasps in the audience that will surely produce deeper connections even still.
The returning characters don’t get as much to wow us with here, and I felt that as I watched. The leads of the last film are now in a mix with many others, and they get a bit lost. Of the new cast additions, much of the film focuses on Leta Lestrange, and her story arc may actually be the most prominent here in that it goes somewhere within the film’s runtime. Zoe Kravitz does a fine job with the character, even while her relationship with Theseus and Newt left me more confused than it should with too many unanswered questions. Claudia Kim has far too little to do as Nagini, but that may change in a future film. Without question, the best part of all of this for me was Jude Law as Dumbledore. He lit up the screen every second he was on, and I can’t wait to see him feature more in the future. The controversial casting of Johnny Depp got lots of headlines, but his portrayal won’t. He usually imbues his roles with an energy that is simply lacking here. Maybe the real-world drama somehow affected his performance, but regardless, there is definite room for improvement here for the role over time.
From a content-perspective, Scripture doesn’t differentiate between good magic and bad magic, as these stories do. If viewed as harmless fiction, these films can be enjoyed. If you see it as more than that, that is for you and your family to decide, and nothing I write here could or should affect that. That said, there are some troubling scenes here involving the off-screen deaths of children that gave my young daughter and I pause. I’ve read that this is the most adult of the Wizard films thus far, but I only agree with that in regards to it being all over the place. Potter films were very much heroic tales, but this film sees characters switching allegiances by film’s end, and that can be confusing to children who may not even fully understand Grindelwald’s motivations. Much was speculated about how much would be shown of a homosexual relationship between Grindelwald and Dumbledore, but having watched the film, it tows the line with implication, depending on how one wishes to see it. In my view, this is how it will likely be handled for the rest of the films, and it’s probably for the best to avoid controversies. I don’t recall anything inappropriate in the way of language or sexual content, but the magic and other content may dissuade some. The film is “setting the board” by drawing lines in the coming conflict, and it could provide room for discussion with how one must align themselves with either Christ or the world in the end.
Frankly, the film didn’t work as well as I hoped it would going in. Some fans may disagree and enjoy it all thoroughly, but while the film offers some intriguing scenarios for future installments, there is a lot left lacking as a film to itself. The film is a labyrinth of plotlines that will hopefully pay off in future films, but shockingly little happens as a story within this film itself. I felt, after watching, that franchise films may be changing to be more akin to seasons of television, but I don’t see that as something that should be a goal. Cinema experiences, in my mind, deserve resolution on a discernible level by the time the credits roll. Expecting multiple entries that exist solely on the premise of “to be continued” is not something I think audiences truly want or deserve. I genuinely like Newt Scamander and crew, so I want a great resolution by series’ end; it’s just a shame that this particular entry was unsatisfying as a whole.