I have dreaded writing this review ever since I left the theater, and don’t think I will get much enjoyment out of it. There is no pleasure to be had in speaking against a group of artists whose work you have always enjoyed — and even been shaped by — in the past. Some take out their frustration on a bad film by hurling ever more clever and cruel epithets at it and its creators, as if to try and get even for an offense. I can relate, and I’m guilty, too. Bad films tend to insult my intelligence, offend my beliefs, take advantage of my goodwill, or all the above. But while I could easily respond with similar invectives, I will refrain out of my respect for writer J. K. Rowling, director David Yates, and their company of talented cast and crew members. I know they have done great work in the past, and I maintain the hope that they may yet do better — at least better than this. (Indeed, as a Christian called to love all his neighbors as God’s image-bearers unconditionally, I should refrain from heaping scorn on any artist, regardless of whether I esteem their previous work or not.)
I don’t think I could say I hated Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Certainly, I didn’t love it either — not in the sense of liking it, anyway. Instead I would say that I was frustrated, saddened, and deeply disappointed by it, and those emotions were amplified, not mitigated, by the love I have for the filmmakers. And so, for the sake of the filmmakers, I will attempt to love the film, not by excusing its flaws or exaggerating its few and fleeting merits, but by writing about it as courteously and reasonably as possible. No rants, no put-downs, no jeremiads about the death of cinema. But it will be a labor of tough love.
I have been a Harry Potter fan ever since my mother took me and my sister to watch Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in theaters. I saw Harry Potter before I read Harry Potter, and though it may be sacrilegious to say so, the films probably have a dearer place in my heart than the books. Until last night, I had never seen a bad film set in Rowling’s magical universe. Sure, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are tonally confused and painfully overlong, the final half-hour of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II is a head-scratching letdown, and the first prequel, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has its own set of issues. But all nine films so far have never been less than functional and entertaining, and some of them are far more than that. If you couldn’t tell, over here at FilmFisher we’re all big fans of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But while Alfonso Cuarón’s brief stint in the director’s chair was probably the franchise’s zenith, I have always connected more with the entries directed by David Yates, especially Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I. In those two films, Yates abandoned the slavish, page-by-page adaptation approach of the previous films, doubled down on tapping into the emotional and thematic potential of the source material, and relied heavily on his cinematographers and composers to create an atmospheric, haunting audio-visual experience that conveyed something about the world of Harry Potter that words could not. For me, those two films are masterpieces.
I share all this to emphasize just how hard it was for me to watch this latest film — and how hard it is for me to write about it now. I know J. K. Rowling and David Yates don’t really owe me anything — I chose to go see this film, I paid for the ticket, I read the ominous early reviews, I accepted the risk of being disappointed — but nevertheless I feel something akin to betrayal. It seemed to me that Rowling and Yates were taking me and the rest of their audience for granted. It’s as if they thought they could turn out a shoddy product and we would still like it, or at least tolerate it, and that we would show up in another two years for the next installment, no matter how bad the one this year.
I’m actually more disappointed with Yates than Rowling. I have long sensed that Rowling is unable or unwilling to leave behind and let alone the creation that made her famous. I am not surprised that she would want to make more Potter-related films, plays, theme parks, and whatnot for as long as the Lord tarries. But I’m dismayed by how, despite all the talent he displayed in earlier installments, Yates does not seem at all in a hurry to strike out on his own. J. K. Rowling is a household name and will forever be synonymous with Harry Potter. She’s tried to escape from underneath Harry’s shadow by writing some crime novels, but her post-Potter career never took off. Perhaps the world will never accept her as anything but the author of Harry Potter. In contrast, not that many people recognize the name of David Yates. He still has a chance of establishing an artistic identity of his own, of avoiding being pigeonholed as Rowling’s right-hand man. But, according to IMDb, David Yates is signed on to direct all three (yes, three) remaining Fantastic Beasts sequels, the last of which won’t be released until 2024. Assuming he started working on 2007’s Order of the Phoenix in 2004 or 2005, this means that, when it’s all finally over, Yates will have been directing Rowling’s films almost non-stop for twenty years.
At the very least, I wish Yates would continue to use these big-budget, low-risk productions as a space for his own formal experimentation. I would have hoped that, just as he cut down on unnecessary exposition in Half-Blood Prince, he would continue to rein in Rowling’s worst tendencies. If we must have more J. K. Rowling films, then let them also be David Yates films. But in both of the Fantastic Beasts films produced so far, the look and feel that used to distinguish Yates’ contributions to the franchise have largely disappeared. Gone is the striking, painterly cinematography. Gone are (most of) the elegant silences and spaces between set pieces. Gone is the emphasis on complex characters and subtler emotions. And whereas the first Fantastic Beasts still had enough charm and charisma to compensate for its weak script, bad CGI, and bizarre moments (#BringColinFarrellBack), The Crimes of Grindelwald shows that the trajectory of this series is likely downward. The good of the first film has been halved, and the bad doubled. Has Yates, too, given up on pursuing ever-increasing excellence? Is he, just like Rowling (and a certain one-time A-list actor whose casting caused an uproar), set on living in the past? Every director makes at least one dud. But if this is turns out to be Yates’s new standard, that, to me, would be a greater tragedy than Rowling’s similarly low new standard.
I have already written two pages and still haven’t said almost anything about the film itself. But there really isn’t much to say outside of this larger context I’ve been expounding. The Crimes of Grindelwald starts off well enough. The opening prison-break sequence is fine, and I enjoyed the early scenes with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), who were a few of the saving graces of the first film. (Also, if you liked the Porgs in last year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are going to love Newt’s baby Nifflers.) But the film begins to derail early on: first, because of its stubborn insistence on cramming in more and more new characters who aren’t properly introduced or developed. Newt, Jacob, and Queenie get lost in the shuffle, as does Katherine Waterston’s Tina Goldstein, who out of all the returning cast gets the most unfairly meager portion of screen time. Ezra Miller’s Credence goes about sulking and having epic temper tantrums just like last time, and for some reason he’s been given a companion (Claudia Kim), who has even less reason than him to be here. Jude Law’s young Albus Dumbledore had a prominent place in the film’s trailers and posters, but he’s similarly given nothing to do and leaves no impression. Johnny Depp’s villain Gellert Grindelwald was also a much-touted selling point in the publicity, but his performance is so uncommitted and boring I fail to see why Yates and Rowling insisted on casting him (#PleasePleasePleaseBringColinFarrellBack). The ever-expanding ensemble also includes Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Newt’s old classmate and sometime lover Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), Newt’s lovesick zookeeper assistant Bunty (Victoria Yeates), some assassin out to kill Credence (Ingvar Siggurdson), and yet another guy out to kill Credence (William Nadylam) — and the list goes on. It’s really too much to handle. (The less said about the inclusion of Nicolas Flamel the better.)
Second, the film buckles under its own weight because for as many unnecessary characters there are seemingly thrice as many excess plot threads. It’s a chore trying to keep up with each character’s motivations and objectives, particularly since the motivations are vague and the objectives keep changing. (Do the characters even know what they’re doing and why?) The entire film starts to feel like an extra-long second act in the unpolished rough draft of a script for a much longer movie. The Crimes of Grindelwald meanders and meanders and flits from storyline to storyline without any sense of momentum, until finally it arrives at its finale — and that’s when things get really weird, borderline incomprehensible, and very exasperating. I do not get mad at films often. I did get mad, multiple times, during the last twenty minutes or so of The Crimes of Grindelwald.
I could go into details and put up a spoiler warning, but don’t see the point. If you see the film, you will know what I’m referring to. If you don’t see the film, you could read the synopsis on Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that, for all the sound and fury and frantic plot machinations that led up to it, nothing actually happens at the end. Aside from a few small alterations, the situation is much the same as it was at the conclusion of the first film. One baffling moment follows another in a crescendo of incredulity, culminating in possibly the silliest and most pointless cliff-hanger I’ve ever seen. Having given us nothing but candy and small appetizers during this meal, Rowling is already trying to whet our appetites for the next one.
For this reason I hesitate to call The Crimes of Grindelwald a film. It’s just a lot of filler—again, like a second act without a first or a third act. Would you pay to be a spectator at a world chess tournament, only to watch both players inch a few pawns forward, then leave for a two-year intermission? I don’t think you could properly call that a chess match. This could be my segue into a reflection on how recent franchise films have been stretching their plots and character arcs thin to sell more movies. But I promised not to make this a jeremiad on the death of cinema, and it’s high time to wrap up.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is probably a bad film, even a disastrous one. But I hesitate to deliver a final judgment. Initial reactions are a poor indicator of a film’s true legacy. If I had to think more than three seconds to remember which film won Best Picture last year, and if films like The Phantom Menace can be savaged upon release and then receive thoughtful re-evaluations decades later (at FilmFisher, at least), then who am I to say that in a few years I won’t return to this film and discover it to be The Empire Strikes Back of this decade? I doubt it, but film criticism is a funny business, so all bets are off.
If I may indulge your patience for just a moment longer, I would argue that there are a few people involved in this film who really should be lauded for their work. They are the ones who save it from being a complete waste of time. Eddie Redmayne’s socially-awkward hero is probably my favorite protagonist in a current franchise. Dan Fogler’s Kowalski is so much fun to watch. Katherine Waterston’s commitment to her character and this franchise always shines through; again, she needs to be given more to do. James Newton Howard’s score is quite good. And last, but not least, the unsung hero of all the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films has to be production designer Stuart Craig. With every installment, Craig continues to build and improve upon a world that feels lived-in and fully realized. His work here — especially the French Ministry of Magic — is as excellent as ever.