Film Review: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ maintains the magic but muddles the plot

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“You’re a magizoologist, Newt.”

“I’m a what?”

“A magizoologist, and a thumpin’ good one, I’d wager.”

That’s what Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) said to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) to butter him up for his mission in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — more or less. All magic tricks and jokes aside, this film — written by author JK Rowling and directed by Harry Potter veteran David Yates — marks the tenth installment in the beloved franchise. Following the events of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, magizoologist Newt Scamander is enlisted by Dumbledore to help track down the troubled Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) before dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) gets there first. Along the way, Newt must confront parts of his past — including his former flame, Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) — and decide what side he’s on in this impending wizarding war against Grindelwald.

This is roughly the premise, but to be frank, there are far too many stories competing for attention, so none of them get fleshed out in an overly satisfying way. On one hand, you have the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, where Newt takes care of his creatures, reconnects with his gang from the first film and utilizes his expertise to track down Credence. This is the central through-line that should have driven the entire film and informed every decision made by JKR in her script. Every idea that strays from that central line — no matter how intriguing — must be cut. “Kill your darlings,” as Stephen King says.

To a certain extent, this storyline still exists, but it almost feels sidelined by the other mini-movies packed into this movie. You have a Credence Barebone origin story, a Dumbledore versus Grindelwald story, a Leta Lestrange backstory and a quasi-love square between Newt, his brother Theseus, Leta and Tina Goldstein — just to name a few. Because of that, The Crimes of Grindelwald becomes increasingly difficult to follow in order to keep each plotline straight. If you asked me what the “Crimes of Grindelwald” even were, I could barely give you a straight answer. By having these colliding storylines, it makes you wonder why Newt and his “fantastic beasts” are being used as the vehicle to tell this story if JKR isn’t interested in focusing on him.

Courtesy of Artrix

Beyond that, it feels as though several supporting characters are present in this film merely for the devoted Harry Potter fan to point and say, “Look! It’s [insert well-known character here]!” As a case in point, there is a certain character related to Voldemort who is included in this film and is largely inconsequential to the plot. Since this character is revealed in the marketing for The Crimes of Grindelwald, it technically isn’t a spoiler to talk about, but if you want to be completely surprised going into the theater, then skip the rest of this paragraph…..Last chance…..Okay, this character is Nagini (Claudia Kim), and it is revealed that before she became Voldemort’s pet snake, she was a human who could transform into a snake. Due to a blood curse, Nagini will eventually turn into a snake permanently — making her a “Maledictus.” When I learned this information a few weeks before seeing the film, I didn’t necessarily mind the reveal, but the fact that Nagini —  a character based off an Indonesian legend — is being played by a Korean actress raises some potentially problematic portrayals of Asian characters. This article breaks down more of the specifics of the controversy. To be clear, it is better to have recognition of representation than to ignore it, but JKR’s attempts to make the wizarding world more inclusive could have been better thought out. On a pure storytelling level, though, Nagini herself serves no real function to the story other than being a friend to Credence.

These character inclusions ultimately detract from what should be the main storyline, which is the primary problem with this film. That aside though, there are elements of The Crimes of Grindelwald that do work well. For one, it can’t be the wizarding world without some musical magic; James Newton Howard does great work on the film’s score, incorporating familiar melodies from Harry Potter while also adding his own acoustical flare. The magical aspects in general are quite exciting and remind me why I love this franchise as a whole, from the spells cast to the titular “fantastic beasts” that Newt cares for. This is accomplished through some excellent visual effects and creature animation. As an example, the beginning of the film is very strong; we see a fun prison break sequence where Grindelwald escapes the clutches of the American Ministry of Magic, which involves more skillful, innovative magic than what previous Harry Potter films have portrayed.

fantastic beasts
Courtesy of USA Today

The only technical aspect that detracts from the film is its color grading. The film is dark, and I don’t mean that in a tonal sense; everything looks like it’s been rendered in greyscale, making it virtually void of color and contrast outside of the occasional spells or creature appearances. Part of this is director David Yates’ visual style, but even in previous Harry Potter installments, I never found it difficult to make out the action on screen compared to this one.

Although The Crimes of Grindelwald suffers from character overload, I was interested in the majority of the characters— strengthened by solid performances across the board. Eddie Redmayne once again does a wonderful job portraying Newt Scamander, the film’s unorthodox, unassuming protagonist. Newt’s character arc sometimes gets lost in the noise of the film, but his journey towards accepting his role within the larger framework of the wizarding world is compelling to watch. Jude Law fills some big shoes in taking on the role of a young Albus Dumbledore, giving him ample charisma, charm and trademark wisdom that we’ve come to know and love from the iconic character. Johnny Depp injects his usual quirky, twisted nature into his performance as Grindelwald, so if that sort of thing works for you, you’ll probably like him in the role. The last character I want to highlight is Leta Lestrange, Newt’s former love interest who is engaged to his brother Theseus. While I don’t think Leta’s storyline is vital to the overall narrative, Zoe Kravitz provides a surprising amount of depth and emotion to what would otherwise be an ancillary character.

Despite a muddled plot, I found myself enjoying the film because of its ties to Harry Potter and the magical world that I love so much — which comes down more to subjective taste than objective reasoning. Fans of the series will probably find some enjoyment in this prequel/sequel. However, those who expect it to reach the heights of the original series will likely be disappointed. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald may not have been as “fantastic” as its name promises, but its fantastical elements were just enough to tip the scale for me.

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