If you didn’t know better, you’d think the “Fantastic Beasts” movies were made by someone who had nothing to do with the original “Harry Potter” books and movies, but owned the rights and was hoping to capitalize on their success.
But J.K. Rowling herself is writing the “Fantastic Beasts” movies, including the new “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” in an attempt to extend her lucrative “Wizarding World” beyond Harry. But while “Harry” was delightful, character-driven and had an epic sweep, the “Fantastic” movies have been charmless, frenetic and overly plotty. Over and over while watching “Grindelwald,” I kept asking myself: “Why are we doing this?”
The setting was the most promising thing about the “Fantastic” movies, turning back the clock to the 1920s and eccentric, magical zoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), who is much better with the odd creatures he keeps in his satchel than with human beings.
Much of 2016’s “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” was a zoological scavenger hunt following Newt’s attempts to re-capture his critters. But even those odd creatures, including the mischievous Niffler and a kelp-sea dragon called Kelpy, take a back seat to the wheezing plot this time, which involves the escape of evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). Relocating in Paris after a prison break, Grindelwald is amassing a movement of “pureblood” wizards who are tired of living in the shadows for the sake of non-magical humans.
We’re not actually sure what Grindelwald’s scheme is, but it seems bad, and involves finding a young orphan wizard named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) with mysterious magical powers who was supposedly killed in the last film. (There’s a lot of narrative reshuffling that goes on here to make the sequel possible, never a good sign.) At the behest of a younger, dapper Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law, not given enough screen time), Redmayne goes to Paris looking for Credence, too.
Along for the ride are all the main characters from the last movie, including wizard-cop Tina (Katherine Waterston) and comic-relief baker Jacob (Dan Folger, trying his darnedest to inject some levity into the proceedings). Then there are a slew of new characters, including Newt’s straight-arrow brother Theseus (Callum Turner), a Ministry of Magic agent tasked with killing Credence before Grindelwald can get to him, and Theseus’ fiancée Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz), whose backstory is both needlessly complicated and totally unnecessary to the movie.
Rowling’s screenplay awkwardly juggles several plot lines while following all these characters around Paris, and some of the plotting is just lazy. Whenever the story hits a dead end, there’s always a magic mirror or a crystal ball or a flashback to let the characters know where they’re supposed to go for the next set piece.
More fatally, all this juggling and world-building prevents us from connecting with any of the characters, good or evil. After two movies, I still don’t understand anything about Tina beyond her great taste in coats. A couple of visits back to Hogwarts (complete with a reprise of John Williams’ “Harry Potter” theme) only remind us how much enchantment is missing this time around.
Rowling clearly wants the “Fantastic” movies to be a parable for the rise of fascism in the 1930s, with Grindelwald resembling any one of several dictators of the period. He even has a mountaintop retreat in Austria just in case we’re somehow missing the connection.
Given recent allegations of spousal abuse, Depp is a highly problematic casting choice. But his performance does capture the populist seduction that fascist leaders practice, soft-pedaling their brutality for public consumption and flattering their followers (“That warm round of applause isn’t for me, but for you.”)
Especially in 2018, Rowling is playing with fire in making those historical parallels and still trying to make a fun, action-fantasy movie out of them. For example, at one point, one of Scamander’s allies is coaxed into joining Grindelwald. It’s an awful and inexplicable plot turn, like if one of Indiana Jones’ pals suddenly decided that maybe the Nazis weren’t so bad after all. It’s also propagates the queasy fiction that there can be “good people on both sides” of the fight against fascism.
“Fantastic” is so interested in setting up future installments of its planned five-part saga, and perhaps other spinoffs and sequels, that it forgets to tell a compelling story or engage with our emotions. By the end, the movie has gotten so far away from its characters that the climax is basically blue fire fighting orange fire. All that fire, and no warmth.