The Mess of J.K. Rowling

Film review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Director: David Yates)

By Sascha Krieger

Sometimes, a film’s problems start with its title. The latest instalment in J.K. Rowling’s cinematic wizard universe that was once centred around a boy named Harry Potter, is a fine example of that. It locates the film within the bounds of the story of famed beast researcher Newt Scamander – known from the textbook used by Harry and his fellow Hogwarts pupils – and at the same time anchors it firmly in the previous series‘ battle between good and evil, with the title character having been established there as a predecessor of „Dark Lord“ Voldemort’s and the first arch-enemy of the embodiment of good, Albus Dumbledore. What is it going to be? A somewhat quirky tale about a highly wird loner and idealist and animal lover or a dark parable about evil invading the world and the desperate attempt to fight it? While the first film already struggled with these conflicting forces, the second one quickly capitulates. It starts with a high-speed battle, showing off the films CGI capabilities as well as its arrival in the world of 3D as though it were 2005. A show of strength without much necessity to the story. Filling time, killing time, awing the audience.

At least, this is entertaining in a somewhat breathless way, which cannot be said about much of what follows. This film, to put it bluntly, is a convoluted mess. It takes everything that was supposed to make the Potter universe intriguing, multiplies it and tries to cram it all into a little over two hours. Theres the good vs. evil battle, complete with hints of a struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, there’s the quirkiness of a playful parallel universe, there’s the trop of family traumas and secrets as the source of the world’s troubles, the power – and dangers – of friendships, an obsession with detailed world building and anchoring the parallel in the actual universe and even traces of the growing up storyline the combination of which with the life and death battle of the world at large made the Potter series so intriguing.

Alas, all that’s left of this here is fragments, set pieces, quotes devoid of function, as the film drowns in an ocean of ever-expanding subplots, constantly changing focus and a complete lack of direction. Who is it about? The good-hearted lovable nerd that is Eddie Redmayne’s way too much maligned Newt Scamander? The villain that is Johnny Depp’s manipulative, drily sinister and unbelievably boring Grindelwald? Or the complex human being, struggling with plenty of demons, that is Dumbledore – played quite capably and with a hint of mischievous ambivalence by Jude Law? Or maybe it is about Credence, the tortured teen (darkly brooding: Ezra Miller) that seemed to have been killed at the end of the first film, a boy at the crossroads of good and evil, a possible game changer and therefore pursued and wooed by both sides?

The answer is: all of them and therefore none of them. The film constantly struggles to keep focus, is enamoured with detailed and incredibly sloppy in its story-telling at the very same time. Its attention to detail is visible in the loving portraits of the strangest creatures, its atmospheric miniatures designed to sketch a credible and at the same time playful alternative world, the fantastic portrait by teenage actor Joshua Shea as young Newt who has Redmayne’s mannerisms down to perfection or the fact that the same two actors who briefly appeared as young Grindelwald and Dumbledore in the seventh Harry Potter film are recast for equally brief memory sequences. On the other hand, there is an astonishing laziness when it comes to plot elements. The apparent death of Credence in part 2? Didn’t happen. Why? No explanation. The obliviating rain wiping away the memory of muggle character Jacob (Dan Fogler)? Didn’t work. Why? Don’t care.

It is an attitude that permeates the film as it jumps back and forth between characters and storylines and loses sight of pretty much everything in the process. The characters are a lot flatter than in the first part. Depp’s Grindelwald has no depth whatsoever, Fogler’s Jacob is surprisingly dull, new arrival Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus is just the latter’s opposite. Female characters are completely discarded: struggling auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), a stubbornly independent and shrewd figure in the first film is now reduced to its own caricature, her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) fares even worse as her character now lacks any foundation after being turned upside down, while Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) is a one-dimensional trauma victim, pretty far on the damsel in distress spectrum. Others, such as Nagini (Claudia Kim) are thrown in to enthuse fans but serve no purpose whatsoever.

Which goes for so much of the film, which is all about effect and none about substance. Some bits are thrown in for the fans – those of Potter and the small but growing community of newly aquired Newt & Co. enthusiasts – others to showcase CGI and 3D competence, there’s plenty of fun and games (contrasting with a totally unconnected shocking bit of violence that is completely ignored after that), a good amount of suspense but all seems contrived. Grindelwald’s dictator’s speech at a Nuremberg-style rally is there because the stakes for the next films must be raised and the political dimension of the Potter series has to be mirrored somehow. But it feels stale, like its own quotation, there is no sense of the frightening darkness that Voldemort’s rise had – or even the claustrophobia of an authoritarian wizarding America in the previous film. The characters lack ambivalence and depth, they are one thing or another, but the confusing human capability to house both good and evil within the same soul is absent. The subplots are so many the viewer stops caring at one point and the plot twists – particularly the unbelievably dumb final one – are so contrived it hurts. This film is a prime example of a franchise grown so complex, burdened with so many expectations that it is hard for it not to be crushed by them. So it tries to bring everything in, resorts to entertaining where it should provide substance, doesn’t care about consistency, characters or any underlying message. Everything has to fit in resulting in a chaotic confusion in which nothing does. What a mess.

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