The Fantastic Beasts film series shows JK Rowling’s Wizarding World which began with Harry Potter, expanding. It’s not all tied to the Harry Potter books, but of course, it has to be. This is not only a film with billions of dollars invested but a series that has the adoration of legions of aggressive fans that will see these movies ten times over. I hold these books (and films) dear. They were a big part of my childhood and helped me overcome multiple forms of anxiety. However, now, we’re into spinoff territory. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is the second of a proposed five-film series. At this point in time, I wonder if they’ll all get made.
Crimes of Grindelwald picks up immediately after the events of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Powerful dark wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) stages a daring prison escape and looks to fulfill his original intentions – to gain followers to eventually raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. It’s mainly about totalitarianism and political subtext, but as the film goes on, his motivations become less clear. Young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to get to the bottom of what’s going on and to stop Grindelwald once and for all.
That is maybe a third of this movie. There are B-stories, subplots and tangents and flashbacks that cut into the action and distract from what’s going on. JK Rowling is a tremendously talented and successful author, but when her work as a screenwriter is treated as a sacred text, there’s a substantial problem. It’s clear she needs to work alongside an actual screenwriter for the next one. In this, she’s kind of throwing everything at the screen and seeing what sticks, and while that can work better in a novel, where the canvas can seem unlimited, it doesn’t work on screen. I said this after seeing the first Fantastic Beasts, but these really should have been books first. It is overstuffed with all of these characters and people to keep track of, and while the viewer is working to keep track of everything, eventually you begin to wonder why you should care.
Johnny Depp is doing his best work in years, and he is best when he’s playing a flat-out villain. He’s had a tumultuous career for the last decade or so, and this is the kind of role he really does best. Claudia Kim is playing a character called Nagini, who turns into a snake. She has been talked about since the Harry Potter books, and she has about three lines in the entire movie. Her job is to walk alongside another character and look concerned all the time.
David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies and the first Fantastic Beasts, makes this all look better than it is. It’s gorgeously photographed. The costumes and the soundtrack and CGI are all great. I’d also say that every city looks great – some of this is set in London, some of it in Paris, some in New York – and after a while you forget where you are. All of the skill that Yates and this excellent cast bring to the table, unfortunately, is undone in the writer’s room.
In conclusion, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a beautiful mess. It’s never boring, but its biggest problem is that it’s just not that much fun. There is so much promise and so much talent at the helm, but Rowling needs to team up with a screenwriter who can rein her in, and provide the notes she needs to hear. It reeks of a franchise in distress, but it can still be saved. After the mind-boggling finale twist, it’s clear there’s plenty of story to still be told. I hope we get to see the whole thing.