A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2018

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD jj

2018, PG-13, 134 mins.

 

Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander  /  Katherine Waterston as Porpentina "Tina" Goldstein  /  Alison Sudol as Queenie Goldstein  /  Dan Fogler as Jacob Kowalski  /  Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore  /  Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone  /  Johnny Depp as Gellert Grindelwald  /  ZoŽ Kravitz as Leta Lestrange  /  Callum Turner as Theseus Scamander  /  Claudia Kim as Nagini / The Maledictus  /  Carmen Ejogo as Seraphina Picquery

Directed by David Yates  /  Written by J.K. Rowling, based on her book

 

 

 

To quote its full tongue twisting title, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is a sequel that seems to have this annoying insistence on pushing me away at an uncomfortable distance instead of luring me in to its expanded upon cinematic universe.  

It's the tenth overall film set in the wizard heavy mythological world of HARRY POTTER and the direct follow-up to 2016's FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (which, in turn, served as a prequel introductory installment to a new series set several decades before Harry and his friends attended Hogwarts).  I appreciated the first FANTASTIC BEASTS effort as a standalone effort that was compellingly segregated apart from the previous HARRY POTTER films in terms of tone and time period, but I nevertheless find myself less enthused by what was on display in THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, a visually impressive, but sluggishly written and paced endeavor that will not only monumentally confuse "muggle" viewers (non magic users in Potter slang), but also die hard fanatics of this series in general with its unsatisfying and convoluted scripted.   

That, and THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD seems like one gigantic two hour plus exposition dump and set-up for several more sequels to come, which results in a FANTASTIC BEASTS film that never really feels like it has a beginning, middle and end that also could naturally segue into future adventures.  J.K. Rowling (creator and original author of all of the HARRY POTTER books, serving as screenwriter here) makes the cardinal blunder of thinking that hopelessly cramming her sequel with as many characters, relationships, and subplots as possible would make for an enticing watch.  The negative side effect of this creative self indulgence is that the narrative drive as a whole lacks focus, not to mention that, in the end, we never really grow to learn much about any of these characters that we can latch onto and truly invest in.  There's undeniable filmmaking craft on display in this sequel (its production values and VFX work are as stellar as they've been in the series), but a sense of magic and awe and wonder seems to have escaped and gone AWOL. 

 

 

Set in 1927, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD opens by showing the daring escape of the dreaded dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (a refreshingly subdued and dialed in Johnny Depp), as he escapes a prison transfer from New York to London on one cold and stormy night (it's also arguably the only sequence in the entire film that has an unpredictable level of menace and visceral intrigue).  Although his actual crimes (which the film takes its very specific title from) are frustratingly never explained and remain vague, Grindelwald's nefarious end game is to gather together all of the best, pure blood wizards in the entire world in an effort to launch a combined attack on all non-magically endowed humans, and in a sense cleanse the world of all of these "No-Mags".  If there is one saving grace to THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD then it would be with Depp's presence here, who manages to find a way of reigning in his usual idiosyncratic weirdness that's on display in previous roles and instead play this antagonist with a soft spoken and sinister edge. 

But have no fear, because magical monster wrangler Newt Scamander (the obtrusively mannered and mubbly Eddie Redmayne) returns again to team up with a much younger and more ordinarily tailored Dumbledore (a well cast Jude Law) to seek out Grindelwald and stop this magic using madmen once and for all.  Newt still pines for the woman of his dreams in Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), and as the pair awkwardly comes together they face an additional task of locating the mysterious Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) and learn of his true origins.  On top of this, Newt also has to confront his past relationship with fellow Hogwarts graduate Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) as well as keeping his muggle BFF in Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) in check, who also is struggling with his budding romance with another wizard, Queenie (Alison Sudol).  Realizing that time is of the essence, everyone bands together to apprehend Grindelwald, the former "closer than brothers" friend to Dumbledore before he can make good on his promises of a human purge on the world. 

Phew.  

Just describing the plot of THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is a tiring affair, and even at a watch checking endurance test of 135 minutes it becomes clear very early on that Rowling is having a difficult go of it simply navigating through this film's dense menagerie of characters.  More often than not, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD contains the type of jam packed storytelling that feels like it would be more easily digestible if a road map were given to all viewers before entering the cinema.  The love triangle nature of Newt's relationship with Leta (who's now engaged to his brother Theseus, played by Callum Turner) is haphazardly peppered throughout the narrative with not much rhyme or reason.  Then there are additional added on characters like French-African wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) that's also on the look out for Credence, as well as the cursed Nagini (Claudia Kim), who's a poor soul that seems to constantly morphed into a snake.  Hell, even the MacGuffin of the film in Credense is horribly underwritten and serves, more or less, as a lazy device to propel the plot forward.  This character is also done no favors by the personality-free performance by Miller in the role. 

A few other glaring scripting missteps taint THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, like Depp's titular villain, who seems to not be in the film nearly enough to make a sizeable impact and to honor the committed performance that the actor gives.  Generally speaking, Grindelwald spends a lion's share of the story in the shadows, with Rowling relying on characters to talk over and over again about him (there are juicy hints that he may have had more than a platonic relationship with Dumbledore, which this film seems absolutely reticent to tackle).  Secondly, THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD has tone consistency issues throughout, having some scenes that - for example - involve child murder (albeit off camera) that's juxtaposed to the lighter and more whimsical moments between Newt and his companions.  Sometimes, this film can't decide whether or not it wants to embrace its grim impulses or just be a light and frivolous fantasy; the disconnected vibe to the whole enterprise that feels off-putting. 

THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD, as previously mentioned, looks lavishly impressive, largely thanks to Oscar winners Stuart Craig (production design) and Colleen Atwood (costume design) giving this period film a sense of immediacy and immersion.  Director David Yates (who previously helmed the last FANTASTIC BEASTS film and the last several of the HARRY POTTER films) seems in his comfort zone with this material, and THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is undoubtedly polished and technically mesmerizing.  Unfortunately, all of the opulent eye candy in the world can't make up for lackluster writing, and Rowling's complete unwillingness to tell a complete and self contained story here is this film's undoing (by the time finally reaches a sense of closure with a couple of plot twists and a cliffhanger ending it becomes simply hard to care).  The biggest sin of THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD is that it's the kind of beyond-obvious cash grabbing fare that can't hide its intentions, despite all efforts to do so.  Plus, for a magical and mystical film about wizards and exotic creatures, this film has no business being as boring as it is.  

Rowling has "promised" a total of five FANTASTIC BEASTS films.  Going forward for me, at least, this prequel franchise is going to need a spell of enchantment to keep me invested.  

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