Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald was subject to plenty of controversy, even before it had opened in cinemas this weekend. The publicity surrounding Johnny Depp’s casting as the main villain and the revelations that Korean actress Claudia Kim would be playing Nagini, a Maledictus and Voldermort’s pet snake, set off a storm in the press questioning JK Rowling’s creative decisions and David Yates’ direction. Unfortunately after seeing the film, we can confirm this second instalment in the Fantastic Beasts franchise proves to be a visually entertaining movie that stumbles around a convoluted plot and ends in an unexpected twist that will no doubt infuriate fans and produce even more articles from critics.
The Crimes of Grindelwald has lots of potential. Rowling’s imagination is as fertile and rich as ever and the ‘fantastic beasts’ in the movie are both more entertaining and visually arresting than in the first film. An especially inventive animal is a large giant dragon-like cat whose attention is diverted by a small fluffy toy on a stick. There are other nice touches of humour in the film such as a baby Niffler flying through the air on a champagne cork. Elsewhere in the film there are neat background details; a grumpy House Elf cleaning owl excrement off windows at The Ministry of Magic, a terrifying French librarian and wizards leaving a large rally in a magical manner similar to the Deatheaters in the Harry Potter films.
The film is visually spectacular with the action moving from New York to London, Hogwarts and finally Paris. There are endless scenes taking advantage of CGI and visual effects to recreate all manner of magical spells, objects and locations. In this second film we get to see The French Ministry of Magic, which boasts a very different type of architecture than the central governments of the wizarding worlds of both London and New York.
In her script, Rowling has made a conscious effort to explore complicated themes such as how far authorities should go to punish and imprison criminals and what happens when laws become ineffectual and outdated. This is best portrayed early on in the film in which Aurors are shown to imprison the dark wizard Grindlewald (Johnny Depp) and remove his tongue. The magical institutions of the 1920s appear to be darker than any of the authorities in the Harry Potter movies.
The main problems with The Crimes of Grindlewald are the plot and the characters, which unfortunately are the two ingredients normally needed to make a decent movie. The pacing of the film is all over the place and it makes the plot difficult to follow. The build up to the final climax is long and overly complicated and action scenes are too fast or quickly edited to follow in any detail. At the heart of the plot is a series of very cliched tragedies, not unusual stories of magic, but very human tales of lost love, grief, jealousy and guilt. Too many characters are crammed in to the convoluted script so the audience is unsure who to turn their attention to and the story writes itself in to a corner to reveal a plot twist that appears to revoke Harry Potter canon and needs some serious explanation in the next film.
There are numerous creative choices made by JK Rowling that seem strange, such as making the female characters both redundant and practically ineffective in favour of a central relationship between two male characters who are not the actually main characters, Dumbledore (an excellent Jude Law) and Grindelwald (Depp, who seems to sleep walk through the role). Poor Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) becomes less and less important as the film progresses and yet when given the chance to actually explore Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship, Rowling backs away from anything more than a blink-and-you-will-miss-it mild suggestion that they were lovers.
Towards the end of the film Rowling actually uses World War II as a narrative device. She shows us again that Hogwarts has a serious bullying problem that they need to address and apparently never actually got round to solving despite almost 60 years of magical children routinely torturing each other so that they then grow up to be maladjusted adults. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the film is the lack of a sufficient amount of ‘crimes’ perpetrated by Grindlewald to justify the title of this sequel. The dark wizard spends most of the film wandering about Paris and despite a scene at the end of the film in which he does slaughter a fair few wizards, we are no clearer to understanding what his true motivation is or his history.
In this way the film is setting the scene for another instalment in the franchise, which is understandable but not exactly enjoyable for the viewer. The main issue with franchises that tell an overarching story across several films is that each film in the series has to be able to stand on its own merit and entertain as a single film watched in or out of sequence. Unfortunately The Crimes of Grindlewald, despite all its magic details and visual effects, simply does not do that.