And now for part the second in this wizard drama, in which I feel conflicted.
Back in the nethers, in the era of 2016, a flawed but charming little film dropped by the title Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I had fun with it, but really didn’t get blown away. I had issues with the plot and some of the things in the characterizations. The ending, however, made damned sure we’d know there was more coming and I braced myself for more. I’ve got issues with prequels (That surely has nothing to do with my having grown up during the release of the Star Wars prequels, no…) and their tendency to lean on fanservice and nostalgia to level the fact that this might or might not be a story we even need to have told. The Wizarding World has fallen prey to that but it’s been enjoyable enough that I can’t knock it too hard.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald – A Wizarding World Film is not only the most laborious title of the year, but it’s sort of a charming adventure in places. Our quartet is back, with Newt Scamander having published his book and been deemed by the Ministry of Magic to be a bit of a danger. He is confined to England for the time being, and has been unable to see anyone else until Jacob and Queenie show up in his apartment one night to announce their engagement. Tina is…AWOL. She’s mad at Newt over a misunderstanding that he is completely unaware of and this is where I start to wonder how this will go.
We get some real wonderful moments early on that make me just smile, from him riding a Kelpy through a rising sea-environment to a new, itsy bitsy Niffler riding a cork as it pops off the bottle and flies away. It’s fun, it’s hilarious, and it brings that magic back that you want for this franchise. It’s different for the Wizarding World films but it still feels like an expansion on the world that Hagrid is trying to show to the kids at Hogwarts, these beasts and creatures being loveable and interesting despite their frightful visage and the people who love them being outcasts. Newt is still an outcast (although they do make sure to let you know that he’s now a celebrity and that most of the women in his life want him) and he’s remained closed off to the world. He doesn’t have his friends, he doesn’t have his ex, and he doesn’t even have much in the way of family outside of his milktoast brother Theseus. It’s an isolated life, and Newt is desperate for it to remain that way. There is political upheaval and strife due to the escape and popularity of Grindelwald, most powerful evil wizard on earth, and everyone is choosing sides while Newt still believes he can stand in the middle and bring people together.
This should be enough for conflict, right? I believe it could be if the film was able to remain focused on Newt, maybe bring Tina back into the mix, but we have complications left over from the previous film in that Jacob Kowalski had his mind wiped but…he kind of has to be in this film, along with his beloved Queenie. And their explanation for his restored memories? The wipe didn’t work – that’s it. Why? Reasons. How? Things and stuff. This is where my eye began to twitch a bit at the hand-waving because I do get it, I know that the popularity of these characters required their presence (Alison Sudal as Queenie was the most underrated performance in the first film), but this film feels like an acceptable but problematic adaptation of a bigger story due to things like this. Newt and Tina’s conflict feels awkward as well, especially in a world where things like Floo Powder travel or mirrors that let you talk to each other exist. I mean…just call him and ask about the situation, right? We also have Leta LeStrange, ex-girlfriend to Newt from back at school, who is now engaged to his brother. Why? No idea, but it seems to just be there to add to the drama that is playing out. This film is pretty to look at and I don’t mind most of the fanservice that we’re given (and there’s tons), but there were smoother ways to separate our characters and to bring them back together. JK Rowling does excellent things with long-form prose and you can tell here that she’s bristling at the brief two-hour runtime, desperately trying to speed things up that would otherwise be allowed to marinate and develop a bit more flavor. Rarely do I say this about big blockbuster filmmaking but I could have used another hour to this film, if for no other reason than to let it build these issues with Tina, Queenie, Jacob, and Leta into something stronger.
And despite all of these complaints I have to admit that I still very much enjoyed this whole thing. I bitched and moaned about the casting of Johnny Depp as Grindelwald but I’ll eat my words on that because he has a lot going for him here. He’s menacing in a quiet way, he’s subtle, and he shows his character to be dangerous through words as much as magical ability. HIs rhetoric consists of many contradictory things that he is able to bring together into something coherent, misleading people into thinking that he isn’t a raving racist but rather someone who wants to be separate but equal from the non-magical community. They need to rule to avoid World War II, a darkness that he has seen coming, and he uses this to rouse the rabble into joining him in his quest to bend humanity to servitude. His big monologue scene is the best performance I’ve seen from since Sweeney Todd back in 2007, he really just gives it another layer that I had grown to not expect after years of seeing him buried in makeup and pirating it up or goofing around with Tim Burton (the less said about those roles the better).
Jude Law makes for a fun, sassy young Dumbledore as well. He’s a bit of a goofy addition to the cast and he doesn’t have a ton of screentime, but what we get is perfectly serviceable and will build into something more between him and Depp in future films. Most of the rest of our characters lack…well, character, but they’re not bad performances or anything too detrimental so I’ll leave them by the wayside.
The twist needs to be acknowledged but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so we’ll try to thread this needle. When it happens…I’m torn. It’s a major reveal and could be a big retcon, but it could also be a red herring so I refuse to be upset about it. A lot of people are unhappy about the whole situation but I’ve got to see where it goes before I lay any judgement on it. There’s plenty of interesting roads it can travel and I’m honestly curious as to how they’ll play that out.
Look, you’ve already made up your mind on whether or not this is for you before heading into it. I’ve seen Potterheads come out elated, eyes glistening in the light as their joy radiates off of them, and I’ve seen people come out absolutely enraged that they paid for this. I, like Scamander, sit firmly in the middle refusing to take a side because this is not a bad film. It’s a mess, but I am thoroughly willing to look the other way on a couple of things because I’m watching Rowling struggle against the length and she’s learning. The characters don’t develop much and that’s a problem, but the things I enjoyed about them from the first film are still there and I still enjoy them. I do stand against some of the prequelitis and fanservice issues that we have to deal with and I’ll continue to wage that war. I grew up through the birth of super-profitable prequels with plot problems and rather than seeing them learn from those mistakes I see it all just running in circles, doing it again and again. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be enjoyable and this film hits that nail squarely on the head. It’s more ambitious than its predecessor and not quite up to the main series this universe was born on. It stands in the middle, perfectly acceptable but nothing mind-blowing. Most of you are going to at least have a good time with this one.
And really, those damned adorable Nifflers could carry the film all on their own.