Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Spoiler-Free Movie Review

Harry Potter is probably the only franchise to be consistently good over so many installments (8, if you’re just counting the original series). That’s basically unheard of. Hell, even Star Wars faltered before too long. And I think that has to be attributed to just how confident Warner Bros. is with the brand and the feel of each film to the point that pumping out another adventure is like whipping up another batch of Tollhouse cookies. Crack open a few established British actors to join the fold, sprinkle in some special effects, whip it up with a score from John Williams, set the oven to 450, shove it in and presto, instant returns. However, if you change that recipe, you risk your cook being able to whip up a good batch. And yes, Harry Potter did transition a bit to accommodate with the aging stars, the films up to Prisoner of Azkaban having similar tones, but everything from Goblet of Fire on adopting a more adult vibe to prepare you for the dark times ahead. Well, even though the series wrapped up adapting the books in 2011 with Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Warner Bros. doesn’t want to close their bakery. In fact, they’ve gone back to the drawing board with founding chef J. K. Rowling to think up some brand new cookies in the Fantastic Beasts series. While the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them that came out two years ago was generally well received if a little underwhelming, it was conceivably the weakest entry in the larger franchise, largely by default. Well, make that second weakest, as its sequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, takes another step down. Granted, the foundation on which it’s been built – namely the marvelous and imaginative world conceived by Rowling – is still so enchanting that it’s a rung above your typical franchise sequel that’s trying to force something in the name of a profit. But at the end of the day, The Crimes of Grindelwald is still trying to push that button when there’s really no button to push. I’ll admit, the Wizarding World – as they’re apt to call it – is incredibly rich with detail and character development, but when it’s all jam-packed into one film, a film that feels like it’s trying to rush head-first into its follow-ups, you’re going to get an undercooked cookie. And if any film was ever a beautiful slog, it’s this one.

Set in 1927, sometime after his capture in the previous film, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) is broken out of confinement whilst being transferred between prison facilities. He is quickly gaining a mass following, after his desires to uproot the No-Majes as leaders of the free world become public knowledge. His intention is to acquire one Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a wizard in control of a very powerful weapon known as an Obscurus, to aid in his quest for world domination. Meanwhile, magic zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is tasked with locating Credence before Grindelwald can by Hogwarts professor Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who for undisclosed reasons cannot oppose Grindelwald, the two having previously been young friends. As all sorts of wizards, good an bad, begin to coalesce in Paris, decisions will have to be made whether they wish to fight against Grindelwald, or with him.

To go any further would get into the nitty-gritty of the movie and partially delve into spoiler territory. I could, conceivably, mention all the secondary characters and their particular subplots, but the synopsis paragraph would likely grow to the size this entire article is right now. That’s not to say the subplots aren’t important to the individual stories, but there are so goddamn many of them. Essentially, this is the growing pains chapter of the series. While the first film was more focused on Newt and his small circle of friends as they try to wrangle all these fantastic beasts, this one is more concerned with getting everyone in place for where they need to be come future sequels. And because of that, the actual plot of the film suffers as a result, insofar that not a whole lot actually happens. Seriously, this is the filmic equivalent of watching a five-year-old set up all their action figures around some Lego set or something in preparation for some kind of all-out conflict. For 134 minutes. And then the movie ends. In that sense, I’m looking forward to where the franchise has to go from here, but damn was it a slog getting there. For a little context, the Fantastic Beasts saga is projected to last five films, this being the second. So there’s three more installments we have to look forward to, stretching out to 2024. Keeping that in mind, this kind of story would have been much more suited to being the fourth entry, insofar as it establishes an unpcoming finale of some sort, kind of like the way Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 was sort of the calm before the storm that was Part 2. But now, we’ve got three more movies that might not be able to carry the burden of consistent quality that one, series-ending installment would be able to. So, in summation, The Crimes of Grindelwald is far, far too concerned with stuffing in lore upon lore upon lore when it should have simply told a proper, singular story. Comparatively, the Harry Potter films had a whole eight entries to breathe and establish itself to tell the sweeping narrative it wanted to tell. Hell, it even added a film by splitting the concluding adaptation in half. This one tries to pack in more exposition and the like than any of the previous, often to nauseating effect.

Even though they seem to be keeping the “Fantastic Beasts” moniker going forward, they don’t seem to be too concerned with their beasts. Yeah, they’re littered around the scenes, but do they factor into the plot? Not a bit. Instead, it seems more and more likely that Warner Bros. simply slapped on the recognizable Fantastic Beasts brand in order to tell this wholly other historic wizarding conflict that doesn’t have anything to do with it. Yes, the first film was very concerned with that element of the story, but this one is not. Ironically enough, however, I found the beasts element to be an improvement over the work done in the predecessor. The CGI is better, the beasts themselves are more imaginative and dynamic, and their relationship with Newt is more interesting than it was before. So it’s a shame that the movie itself isn’t really about them, that they’re an excuse to keep the primary heading for the film. Still, if Warner Bros. is going to go full-steam-ahead with this wizard conflict – and it seems too late to change course now – I’d rather they just forget about the beasts altogether and stop pretending that’s what they’re really in for.

Seeing that they’re adding more and more lore behind the series, they naturally added more and more actors to join the fray. Particularly, this is the first film to feature Johnny Depp completely as Grindelwald after taking over the reins from Colin Farrell in the previous adventure. And say what you will about Depp as a person – this is a simple review article – he does respectably fine here, even though the supposed good stuff from his character is still to come. And speaking of taking over reins, we’ve got Jude Law coming in to play a younger Albus Dumbledore. While he doesn’t seem terribly beholden to doing an impression of the Richard Harris or Michael Gambon versions, he holds his own and delivers what the script asks of him. Again, probably more to come. Also coming on board are Zoë Kravitz and Callum Turner as Newt’s old flame and brother, respectively, and even though they don’t get a whole lot to do until the end, the characters are also solid additions to the franchise. I’d argue the first film’s leads, Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston, get the short shaft here as they’re playing in an ensemble show now, but the characters are endearing enough to keep me rooting for them, and by rooting for them, I mean rooting for them to take center stage again. And again, I’d have to say the standouts are Dan Fogler’s No-Maj Jacob Kowalski and Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein as star-crossed lovers caught in this battle for autonomy. I’ll admit, a lot of their developments are subjects to leaps in logic and will either have you scratching your head or feeling the feels, but they remain the most interesting pair among the bunch. And while Ezra Miller is perfectly fine here, they really should have killed his character off in the last one. The less said about that, the better.

I’d love to go into more detail, but I’m committed to keeping these reviews spoiler-free. Unfortunately, to really do the discourse on this film justice, you’d have to get into the meat and potatoes of this epic saga Rowling has crafted in just one movie. Yes, I could conceivably publish a spoiler review, but with the Thanksgiving slate coming up, I’m going to be a bit too busy to get around to that. Not to mention I think I’ve just about had it with thinking about the state of the Wizarding World after this drudgery for a little while. But let that not dissuade you from checking it out. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald may be a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess, as even bad for Harry Potter still isn’t really that bad. Though I should probably knock on wood.

Final Score: 5/10

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