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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald Movie Review

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) movie poster Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Theatrical Release: October 12, 2018 / Running Time: 133 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: David Yates / Writers: J.K. Rowling (screenplay & characters)

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Zo Kravitz (Leta Lestrange), Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander), Claudia Kim (Nagini), William Nadylam (Yusuf Kama), Kevin Guthry (Abernathy), Jude Law (Albus Dumbledore), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald), Carmen Ejogo (Seraphina Picquery), Brontis Jodorowsky (Nicolas Flamel), Fiona Glascott (Minerva McGonagall), Poppy Corby-Tuech (Vinda Rosier)


J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Pictures have quite seamlessly and masterfully changed what "Harry Potter" is. What briefly stood as an historic YA film series consisting of eight films released over ten years now continues as this living, perennial franchise that will see a new movie released every couple of years. Fantastic Beasts is not Harry Potter, as even the most ardent fans will tell you. But it is like Harry Potter and that is enough for many to keep coming back for a taste of the excitement, wonder, and fantasy that so many millennials grew up with. To reach this point without the prevailing sentiment being that the creators are making a cash grab and beating a dead horse is pretty remarkable.
Even the most successful of modern film series -- Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man -- have been unable to reach even a fourth installment without demand drying up or an air of desperation creeping in. This second series within Rowling's wizarding world gives us the tenth entry in the franchise at large. It can't be mere fan fiction if Rowling is writing it, David Yates (helmer of the fifth through eighth Potter movies) is directing, and David Heyman (producer of every Potter movie to date) is producing.

Arriving two years after the first film adapted from one of Harry Potter's "textbooks", Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald moves the series a bit from "spin-off franchise" to "prequels." Like its predecessor, this one is set in the mid-1920s, so most of the beloved Potter characters are not yet around. But this one prominently features a young Hogwarts professor named Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law). In addition, a young teacher named McGonagall (Fiona Glascott) makes an appearance and the Grindelwald of the subtitle is Gellert Grindelwald, Dumbledore's dear "friend" turned nemesis, a character mentioned repeatedly in the Potter novels and turning up in the last two films.

We knew Grindelwald would loom large this time, after a leading character in the first film, Colin Farrell's director of magical security Percival Graves, was revealed to be Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in diguise. Back in the early days of the Potter films, casting Johnny Depp in any role would have been inconceivable, particularly with Rowling's all-British cast stipulation. Depp's star has plummeted, Rowling has loosened her casting rules, and the clamor with regards to the actor's off-screen character has not been enough to get the part recast. So once again, we get Depp playing the white-haired, wonky-eyed, dangerous, powerful dark wizard who appears to function as kind of the Voldemort of this timeline. It's another big character for Depp, though one he clearly needs more than it needs him.

A young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists the help of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."

The film journeys around quite a bit, from New York to England to France to Austria. Creature researcher and author Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has to answer for the chaos he did not do much to control in New York. Grindelwald,
of course, breaks free from imprisonment in an ambitious airborne carriage escape sequence. Dumbledore reaches out to Newt to help thwart Grindelwald. Meanwhile, a reporting error has clouded Newt's romantic potential with American Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston). Tina's sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) remains quite curiously enamored with Newt's No-Maj New York friend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), the film's portly comic relief. Credence (Ezra Miller) is still around and a threat. This time out, he's determined to find out where he comes from. And over in Europe, we find another Newt Scamander love interest in Leta Lestrange (Zo Kravitz), who is engaged not to the magizoologist, but his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), who works for the Ministry of Magic.

The differences between these films and the Potter ones are both obvious and significant. These movies arrive with the power to completely disarm, for they haven't already been available in novel form for years. Anything could happen and, if spoilers are avoided and Yates and company do their job, moviegoers shouldn't see it coming. The flipside of this is that moviegoers haven't already warmed to these characters whilst turning hundreds of pages. There isn't the emotional connection that is held towards Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Draco, Luna Lovegood, Dobby, all the way down to Lee Jordan, Cho Chang, and Viktor Krum. Two movies in, I have yet to develop much of an appreciation for any of these new Fantastic Beasts characters. To this end, the arrival of Dumbledore is significant. Here is someone who with a mere dramatic turn of the head in his heroic introduction invites all these feelings. We haven't seen young Dumbledore before but Law plays him as you expect and the portrayal wins you over mostly through pre-existing sentiment.

You know that Dumbledore is never in any real danger here. The same cannot be said for the other characters, not that that breeds the emotional investment you would like it to.

If the characters aren't particularly endearing and the narrative is muddled enough not to detail with any coherency at any given moment, how does The Crimes of Grindelwald not land as some kind of epic disappointment but a clearly above-average piece of family entertainment? The trick may simply be that it's polished enough and that it embraces the same instincts that define the Potter series atmospherically, from John Williams' iconic themes (which are modified here, as in the last film, by James Newton Howard) to even just the color palette. It's easy to get swept up in this period fantasy, a series whose only obvious frame of reference for comparison is the original octet of Potter movies.

Johnny Depp plays the subtitular powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald in "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."

These are a clear step down from those, lacking the richness, impact, and strong connective tissue of those tales. But when we're judging Fantastic Beasts not to Harry Potter but tentpole cinema at large, any criticisms become diluted. This saga does feel more commercial than artistic, but this is a business and clearly the DC Extended Universe isn't putting Warner Bros. on top of the field. The first installment relied heavily on the titular beasts, inviting us to marvel at creatures cute and fierce longer than needed. This one scales back on the CG eye candy some, opting to invest more in the human characters and narrative that I remain largely unmoved by.

At this point, the biggest challenge to the franchise may be in wielding off fatigue and stagnancy. Before the release of the first, Rowling announced there would be five Fantastic Beasts films. It's easy to imagine that number rising or falling based on box office returns, but one hopes the series is being plotted out in full much like the Potter book and film series were. The consensus on the Potter films, either in the moment or just retrospectively, seems to be that some new blood was needed after the Chris Columbus-directed first two films. I can't imagine being as passionate and appreciative of the series collectively without Alfonso Cuarn coming in and knocking the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, out of the park. Yates has now directed the last six movies set in this universe and while he's clearly qualified and able to meet the studio's demands and deadlines, I can't help but wondering if a fresh set of eyes at the helm wouldn't be worth the risk it implies. With Yates in the director's chair, I have no doubt these movies will be predictably fine. But only two of his six have really risen above "fine" and one of those owes much to its finality.

This raises a question of what, beyond strong and steady attendance, Warner even wants for this franchise. Industrial respect? Technical Oscars? Critical acclaim? The first of those has never been in doubt. Accolades have consistently eluded the franchise. As for the reviews, the ones earned by this are the worst of the ten to date by a wide margin. Having revisited the first Beasts just a few hours before seeing this sequel, with my memories of it being minimal just two years later, I don't see Crimes of Grindelwald as a big drop-off but the concerns addressed in the negative reviews are some of the same I have raised here and that could well continue to dog this series.

Related Reviews:
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
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Directed by David Yates: The Legend of Tarzan | Written by J.K. Rowling: The Casual Vacancy
Eddie Redmayne: The Theory of Everything | Johnny Depp: Dark Shadows Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Jude Law: Hugo Sherlock Holmes | Zo Kravitz: Kin Divergent

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Reviewed November 18, 2018.

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