Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the second Fantastic Beasts instalment, a film struggling to find itself within the larger series, and one which has a dark cloud hanging over it
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – ★★☆☆☆
Expanding a narrative universe backwards cannot be easy. With a history established in the world of Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts has to fit alongside tonnes of canonical information. The second film in a series of five, The Crimes of Grindelwald is all about world-building, often at expense of the one that already exists. Fans were quick to criticise a trailer from earlier this year showing Aurors apparating on to Hogwarts grounds, something noted to be impossible in the books. Worse, a beloved character from the main film series appears…eight years before they were even born.
It’s easy to be cynical, but the Fantastic Beasts entries repeatedly deserve it. For all of JK Rowling’s supposed progressive values, her steadfast support of Johnny Depp’s inclusion as the titular Grindelwald is disappointing. Allegations against him, as with many men post-Me Too, remain contentious. A legal settlement between Depp and his ex-wife Amber Heard agreed on confidentiality, though he has flouted this recently in an interview with GQ, leading to Heard’s lawyer accusing him of psychological abuse. Ezra Miller, here playing Credence Barebone, has said the cast were not consulted over Depp’s role in the film.
Grindelwald is front and centre for much of the film. Having escaped from prison, he seeks to build an army of followers under a eugenics-led ideology. For each word of tolerance (he has a soft spot for romance), there is another stroking division between pure bloods and the rest of the wizarding and human worlds. While relevant to today’s news cycle, the film takes place in the interwar period of the early 20th century. It’s no coincidence a number of main characters are Jewish.
Set in a politically precarious time, Rowling draws parallels with today’s climate and takes stances on no-platforming and cults of personality. It won’t win her any converts in this post-Twitter stage of her career, but audiences will just be happy the film finally wakes up.
With one eye towards future instalments, Grindelwald’s actions are the crux of the film. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is an observer, tasked by Jude Law’s Dumbledore to stop him. Old friends reappear to join Scamander, though only Alison Sudol’s Queenie has much to do. For a film over two hours long and with a talented cast, it is surprising how little impact it has and how little it feels like any of the character’s develop.
As part of a five-film sequence, the second instalment is doomed to move pieces into place for later entries. That doesn’t make it a guaranteed failure – Lord of the Rings’s The Two Towers is hardly unaccomplished – but it lowers the stakes. JK Rowling’s script is too literary, leaning on exposition to explain extended histories for characters that newcomers and casuals will struggle to keep up with. Criticism directed towards Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince applies here, a story too aware of what is coming next to do much with what is happening now.
That’s not to say there are no ideas at all. A late-in-the-day setpiece is visually awe-inspiring, tying the events of the wizarding world to that of muggles in a way the series hasn’t before. Set in a politically precarious time, Rowling draws parallels with today’s climate and takes stances on no-platforming and cults of personality. It won’t win her any converts in this post-Twitter stage of her career, but audiences will just be happy the film finally wakes up.
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Everything going on behind the camera is worthy of the Harry Potter brand. Costume and set designs are as lush as one would hope, with the latter all artificially created in studios. Despite significant chunks of the film set in Paris, the crew never left Hertfordshire and yet the film still feels global in scope. James Newton Howard’s score is a particular standout, eschewing crescendos for a sense of unease, the political unrest creeping through the endless strings, the sound of a politician’s followers spreading their hate with precision rather than urgency.
It may be the case The Crimes of Grindelwald makes more sense in hindsight like Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows – Part 1. Many criticisms directed towards Avengers Infinity War apply here too: the stakes are too low, and it very much feels like a part of something rather than a whole. It makes for a patience testing watch, the film acting as an extended trailer for its final act and what is to come.
But what hangs over the film is its cynicism. Its inconsistencies are frequent and unforgivable, prioritising an expanding lore over respecting what already exists. Those who are still invested in this world deserve the same attention to detail they are used to from the original series and too often that is absent. Worst of all, Johnny Depp’s inclusion hangs over the film, and that he won’t dent its box office success at all (the film has taken over $250m at the time of writing) means the market is dictating whether Hollywood will really pay attention to its institutional problem of abuse. The real crime of Grindelwald is all signs point to business as usual.
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