Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t an aggressively bad movie by any means and, taken on its merits alone, it has a fairly unimpeachable case at not being the worst film in the Harry Potter canon (Goblet of Fire, by a fair amount). But it’s undeniable that Grindelwald is aggressively underwhelming – functionally, it’s a 134 minute television episode designed to be a forgettable middle entry in a 5-part movie saga based on a fictional textbook (hm). The low bar the movie sets for itself is the most concerning thing about this whole endeavor – we are getting a bloated, dangerously thin film designed for the sole purpose of keeping the Potter cash train moving forward.
The title of the movie is a red flag in and of itself: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is as incongruous a title as we’ve had since, say, The Star Wars Holiday Special. The movie has major identity problems owing to the fact that its predecessor is mostly a light, frivolous animal movie starring a mumbling Eddie Redmayne with a bit of action tacked on at the end. Now, due to the inexplicable decision to use that movie as a vehicle to Trojan Horse (very incrementally) a Dumbledore-Grindelwald prequel series, this movie is a stylistically muddled two-hander between Redmayne’s anti-social Newt Scamander and Johnny Depp’s Gellert Grindelwald (aka Wizard Hitler). Everything about Scamander is uneven: from the insistence that he doesn’t take sides (although he’s almost immediately revealed to be on Dumbledore’s side) to the awkward and nonsensical love square he finds himself in with his brother, his brother’s fiance (more on her later), and Tina, who gets all her news from the tabloids apparently. Grindelwald is treated with the broadest of villain brushes – as he oversees the death of a small child, he closes his eyes briefly in a moment of…pleasure? remorse? He stomps around with a band of barely written henchman, appearing to other main characters on occasion and giving bland speeches to appeal to their individual desires. (Queenie’s character is just awful. Why does no one acknowledge that drugging her boyfriend is way more wrong than her boyfriend thinking that she’s crazy? How come Grindelwald only has to say one word (“love”) to convince her to join the Wizard Nazis? Why does she abandon her boyfriend to join said Nazis when she is considering joining the Nazis so she can be with her boyfriend? Ugh.)
Zoe Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange is a breath of fresh air in contrast with the rest of the bland supporting cast, but her story completely unravels about two-thirds of the way through the film. Kravitz gives a nice turn in Big Little Lies, but she proves her mainstream bonafides here with a 100% committed performance to a complicated character. It’s unclear why she loves both of the brothers and it’s unclear why she finds herself so despicable (and no one ever tells “hey, you are pretty great! pretty weird that you switched the babies, but you were a kid and it’s not like you caused the ship to wreck. hey wait a second, we have magic…were there no wizards on board to make the ship not wreck? only small children from prestigious families, travelling unaccompanied? OK.” Ugh.) But Kravitz’s commitment on lines like “You never met a monster you couldn’t love” is a bright spot, even if the line itself doesn’t make much sense. Switching the babies is a STRETCH and that’s putting it kindly, and her sacrifice at the end of the film is handled poorly in that it seems like it’s quite superfluous.
Anyway, you get it – I was disappointed. Rowling’s post Potter record has been a bit checkered, and the comparisons to another formerly beloved creator beg for mediocre internet thinkpieces (hey, look where you’ve found yourself!). George Lucas created the iconic Star Wars trilogy and then spent the next 30 years trying to undo the saga, at least according to a vocal contingent of fans. And you can just feel that same contingent beginning to rise up in the Rowling camp, can’t you? The comparisons are a bit of a stretch, but they’re there: post-release editing (Rowling has claimed she wishes Hermione ended up with Harry, among other things), putting the official name of the brand on fan-fiction (The Cursed Child, to be fair I have not seen it), and the creation of an underwhelming prequel series.
But hope is so far from lost with Rowling. As spectacular a visionary as he is, Rowling has more writing talent in her pinky than George Lucas has ever possessed. Her legacy is probably most well thought of if she had never touched the Potter characters post-original series, but the pulls to do so are incredibly understandable: prestige (writing the movies herself), creative (creating a whole new cast of characters), and financial (money). And, much as the original Star Wars has obtained a near mythic status, the original Potter films are, truthfully, a pretty mixed bag if you can watch them without the rose-colored glasses of your childhood adorned. Those movies are loud, entertaining fantasy movies that attempt to cram in as much of their 700 page source material as they can. So, the Fantastic Beasts series really isn’t a disaster so far and it’s really not any worse than we should have reasonably anticipated. The pitchforks are mostly gone, too – as was the case with the first installment, it seems that the movie zeitgest is moving on quickly to other things.
It’s hard to say where they go from here – Warner Bros. hasn’t yet given any indication that they’re going to slow down the original plan of a five-parter. I think there’s a world where they try and condense everything into one final film, but doing so risks jeopardizing their relationship with Rowling, the creator of their biggest franchise of all time. So, we have three more movies forthcoming set for the next three even numbered years. Who knows what the movie landscape looks like in 2024? Begrudging franchise acceptance could turn into resentment quickly, but it could just as easily go the other way too. (What am I saying anymore? I should end this article while I’m ahead-ish.) It’s hard to criticize Rowling, because she was such a seminal figure in so many childhoods. And it’s equally important to feel the space to criticize without reconsidering the rest of her canon. Regardless, Rowling has certainly earned herself the right to expand her stories if she’d like, even if her risks don’t always pay off.