(Note: this review does not contain explicit spoilers for The Crimes of Grindelwald. It does, however, contain spoilers for the first Fantastic Beasts film, plus Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.)
JK Rowling gave the world a series of magical books which can never be taken away, and which will always hold a special place in my heart. When others complained about all the additions she has subsequently made to her Wizarding World canon, I didn’t join in; for the most part, they seemed justifiable, and I even actively liked some of them. Sure, there was no way I could accept Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange having a daughter together in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but that play could be dismissed as fanfiction. However, unlike Cursed Child, the Fantastic Beasts films are written by Rowling herself. They open with a Wizarding World franchise logo. They are meant to be taken as a genuine prequel to the Harry Potter books. And this film, well…
There are some noticeable violations of established canon throughout, such as Newt Scamander being able to follow Albus Dumbledore after he Apparates; or Dumbledore teaching Defence Against The Dark Arts at Hogwarts instead of Transfiguration; or Professor McGonagall also teaching at Hogwarts at a time when, according to the Harry Potter Wiki, she shouldn’t even have been born. But there is a twist at the very end that completely spits in the face of what we already know. Something that cannot merely be justified as “well, that wouldn’t have necessarily been revealed in front of Harry, and he’s the POV character.” Trust me, this would have come up if Rowling had it in mind when she wrote the books. Before this twist, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was merely a bad film. But the twist strongly indicates that she just doesn’t care about maintaining a consistent universe any more; instead, we get this new “fact”, shoehorned in for the sake of drama. And I’m not just disappointed that this was considered acceptable – I’m angry.
But I can’t say any more as I want this review to be spoiler-free. So what about the rest of the film?
We open with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) escaping from his American imprisonment in an unnecessarily dramatic and convoluted way – and in doing so, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Over in Britain, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is informed that Credence (Ezra Miller), the unstable Obscurial who was apparently killed in the first film, is still alive and hiding in Paris, and that Grindelwald may try to recruit him. Newt is unwilling to go to Paris and either find Credence or combat Grindelwald himself, even when his old teacher Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) tries to persuade him to do so. Only when he learns that his would-be love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is currently in Paris does Newt spring into action and hop across the Channel, accompanied by his old Muggle sidekick Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), whose apparent memory erasure in the first film is unconvincingly hand-waved.
Now, remember how each of the Harry Potter books managed to tell its own isolated, cohesive three-act story while also being a single chapter in a grander narrative? That is not the case here. The Crimes of Grindelwald is an in-between story, setting pieces up for events to come, with only a weak and chaotic plot of its own. We are introduced to characters and plot threads that get no resolution and little in the way of development, so we can only hope that we learn more later down the road. For example, remember how in my blog post addressing the controversy surrounding Nagini (Claudia Kim), I emphasised that we didn’t know how she would be treated in the film? Well, I am no better informed now, because we learn nothing about her that hasn’t already been mentioned and she has practically nothing to do. There’s some forced conflict in the “romance” between Newt and Tina as she mistakenly believes he is engaged to another woman; in the scene where he has a chance to explain the truth to her, he takes so long to simply spit the words out that I literally facepalmed. (I later facepalmed again for the aforementioned twist. That is what this film drove me to.)
The overall structure of the film can be visualised as a rope, which gradually unravels more and more along its length until the strands are all over the place, only to try and come back together in a tangle that falls apart when any strain is put upon it. There are so many characters and plot threads thrown in that when one character’s scene is over, it can be a long time before you see them again, and you have to actively remind yourself where they were and what they were doing when they last appeared. One supposedly important sub-plot revolves around Credence possibly coming from important pure-blood heritage, potentially connected to the Lestrange family somehow; this was so complicated and poorly explained that I could only sort of make sense of it after a long exposition scene at the climax. There’s a fine line between leaving gaps in a story that allow the audience to become more invested figuring things out for themselves, and leaving so much out that the audience is totally bewildered.
With only his brief appearance at the end of the first film to go on, I was not a fan of Johnny Depp being cast as Gellert Grindelwald, partly because he looked ridiculous: Deathly Hallows made no mention of Grindelwald having a moustache or stuck-up hair. In this film, Depp doesn’t look any better, but he does get to stretch his legs in the role, and he could be worse. We get hints of his powers of manipulation, and his views as to why wizards should dominate Muggles, but not enough to properly differentiate him from the likes of Voldemort. Along similar lines, Jude Law is only able to express a few of the charming mannerisms associated with Albus Dumbledore, and his disappointingly plain fashion sense is a far cry from the “flamboyantly cut suit of plum velvet” he is seen wearing in a Pensieve flashback (about a decade after this film is set) in the book of Half Blood Prince.
Is there anything good about this film? Well, I suppose it’s not boring to watch. There is still some novelty in seeing the Wizarding World expanded upon. And the fantastic beasts themselves provide some good visual appeal, such as the Zouwu, a Chinese cat-like beast which appears to take some inspiration from classic multi-legged Chinese dragons. Then again, while the beasts do perform a few useful tasks here and there, the main reason for their presence seems to be to justify the title of the film, and help to provide a weak excuse for why Newt the magizoologist is considered the best candidate to take on Grindelwald.
In conclusion, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a great deal worse than its merely lacklustre predecessor; a messy, unsatisfying experience that throws canon out of the window. At this point, JK Rowling needs to either refine her screenwriting skills or stick to Cormoran Strike; those books are still good. Rating: 1.5/5.