Special Effects: B
I’m of two minds about director David Yates’s sequel to 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which was itself fun but inessential. The same could be said, really, of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald — perhaps just slightly less fun, and perhaps barely more essential. That is, for die-hard fans of anything in the “Potterverse,” anyway.
And therein lies the rub: How many casual fans of the Harry Potter series will even care about this? After all, in terms of U.S. domestic box office, were we to fold Fantastic Beasts into Harry Potter as part of the same franchise, the original Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them would come in dead last. To be fair, a domestic haul of $234 million is still enviable in its own right. Still, if you compare that film’s $74 million opening weekend to The Crimes of Grindelwald earning $64 million, there is no denying this endless return to the “Wizarding World” universe is yielding diminishing returns.
And now, according to reports, Fantastic Beasts is intended to be a five-film series. If all of them are released a minimum of two years apart, that’s an additional decade of films set in the same universe as the Harry Potter series — which itself took 11 years to get through, in cinema form, at least. The Fantastic Beasts films, by contrast, are original scripts as opposed to literary adaptations, albeit still written by J.K Rowling.
It may be a fair question, though, to ask if Rowling is at least slightly losing her touch, given certain convictions from the Harry Potter productions now abandoned (I still find myself distracted by British actors playing American characters, after any American actors were strictly barred from being cast in Harry Potter films), or the more recent controversy regarding the casting of an Asian woman (Claudia Kim) as Nagini, the snake creature eventually loyal to Voldemort. As far as that is concerned, I suspect many people have jumped to judgment before seeing what nuance the film actually affords the character — but then, what do I know? I’m just a white guy — and I mean that with more sincerity than flippancy.
Beyond that, it must be said that, plot-wise, The Crimes of Grindelwald is a tad overstuffed. One could make the argument that it’s unfair to make definitive judgment of a single chapter before the entire story is completed, and we still have three left to go. That said, with five films in which to tell this story, why cram so much into this one? I found it difficult to follow at times, and, although this film does have plenty of its own fun magical “beasts” and referenced in the title, they are even less relevant to the overall plot — so far, at least — than they were in the first installment. At least Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had several extended detours focused on said creatures. In this outing, that being the exact title of the book Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, endlessly modest charm and charisma still intact) is working on, is never even mentioned.
Furthermore, action-packed though The Crimes of Grindelwald may be, once again being a casual observer of the “Wizarding World” is potentially to the audience’s detriment. Unlike the Harry Potter series, in which each story can stand alone if necessary, anyone watching The Crimes of Grindelwald without having seen its preceding installment is apt to get lost quickly. I got lost occasionally myself, and I literally watched the first film the very morning before seeing this one.
Yet, even though the casting of Johnny Depp as the title character seems a dubious choice at best, I absolutely would recommend The Crimes of Grindelwald to existing fans of this magical world. The production design details remain fantastic; the visual effects are up to standard, if far from cutting-edge; the characters are comfortably familiar. Speaking of the characters, this is one element of the script I will commend: some of them go in very different directions from what their arc in the first film may have suggested. After this many years, there is value in the ability to surprise — even if the characters themselves may disappoint. That is the nature of human imperfection, after all.
We do meet Dumbledore as a young man, at least, and Jude Law works well in the part. We meet him back in London, the exclusive setting of the previous film of 1920s New York City now giving way to several international locations — including even the French Ministry of Magic. It’s a nice broadening of scope to the story proceedings, if also allowing for a bit of an excess in complexity.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald isn’t great, but for fans of the “Wizarding World,” it’s good enough. It’s . . . fine. It effortlessly holds your attention for well over two hours, and even if it fails to prove truly exceptional, it does leave you ready still for more. It’s like a cinema version of binge-watching a streaming television show: if the credits included a box you could click that said, “Watch next episode,” you’d still think to yourself, I still want to know what happens next! —*click*. One can only hope that, in the end, the inevitable road to Voldemort is more than just puzzle pieces clicking into place, and that the whole of this series proves better than the sum of its parts.